Father Thomas D. Williams, LC
A Different Gauge of Progress

Just as in the chronology of Jesus’ childhood, attention shifted today from Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem to his hometown of Nazareth. By the dawn’s early light Benedict XVI left Jerusalem by helicopter and flew to the land where Jesus spent the bulk of his life on earth, from his early childhood to the age of 30 or so.

In his homily at this morning’s Mass, Benedict XVI reminded his listeners that Nazareth was also the place of the Annunciation — where the Angel Gabriel proclaimed to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, and where the Word was made flesh.

Nazareth was the place where Jesus learned the trade of carpentry from his foster father Joseph. Moreover, the Holy Father added, he “learned the virtues of a manly piety, fidelity to one’s word, integrity and hard work.”

Nazareth was Mary’s hometown, as well, and the Pope took advantage of this fact to dwell for the second time this trip on the importance of women in the Church and in society. Nazareth, Benedict XVI noted, “reminds us of our need to acknowledge and respect the God-given dignity and proper role of women, as well as their particular charisms and talents.” Whether as mothers, as workers, or in consecrated life, “women have an indispensable role in creating that ‘human ecology’ which our world, and this land, so urgently needs,” the Pope said.

All of these reflections — and countless others that the Pope has been offering these days — lead to a necessary conclusion. Though you may never know it from many news reports, Benedict XVI’s trip to the Holy Land is not primarily political; it is spiritual. From the outset Benedict has insisted on calling it a “pilgrimage” rather than a generic “trip” or “visit.” And despite its very public side, a pilgrimage always has an intensely personal dimension. The Pope is, first and foremost, a Christian believer, a disciple of the Lord Jesus.

Think for a moment what it must mean for Benedict to visit Galilee for the first and quite probably only time as Pope. Galilee, where St. Peter met Jesus for the first time, was called, left everything and followed him, never knowing that he was to be the first Pope of Christ’s Church and one of her first martyrs.

Think of what it has meant for him these days to be staying in Jerusalem and visit its holy sites. Jerusalem, where Jesus was denied by Peter, betrayed by Judas, instituted the Holy Eucharist, and gave his life for us on the cross. Jerusalem, where Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

The Holy Father is a deeply spiritual man, and longed to make this pilgrimage. It is the journey he desired more than any other. And now he is here. Underneath the tremendous swells and choppy whitecaps of much activity and opposition, there is a quiet place like the depths of the sea where the Pope retires unperturbed, a place where he is alone with his God. Like Mary, he stores all these things up and ponders them in his heart (see Luke 2:19).

In this context we get the full sense of St. Augustine’s beautiful expression to the faithful of Hippo: “With you I am a Christian; for you I am a bishop.” Here in the Holy Land Benedict is both. For us — indeed for all nations and peoples — he is the bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ. He is a leader, a prophet of peace, a preacher of the Gospel and a teacher of nations. For us, he tends the flock of Christ and confirms his brethren in the faith. Yet with us Benedict XVI is a simple Christian, a pilgrim visiting the holy sites and drawing strength from the grace that is present here. With us he stands in awe before the mystery of God’s providence and the majesty of his works.

I am often asked these days whether Benedict’s trip has been a “success.” No doubt it has, but not for the reasons many would suspect. I am sure that Benedict himself would respond that real and lasting change — the kind that counts — is not the result of political programs, clever arguments, or garnering the approval of the masses. It is the work of God’s grace in the human heart.

Benedict has come as an instrument of that grace and, in St. Francis’ words, a channel of God’s peace. That is what he is called to do, and as a good and faithful servant, he is doing it.