Sandro Magister
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Planting an olive tree with the president of Israel, the Holocaust memorial, the wall of separation, the Holy Sepulcher… The essential images of the voyage of Joseph Ratzinger. Recounted and interpreted by the pope himself

ROME, May 15, 2009 – He had begun his trip from Mount Nebo, recalling “the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people,” and expressing “a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews.”

He concluded it on Friday, May 15, at the airport of Tel Aviv, again placing at the center this proximity between the two peoples.

In greeting the president of Israel before returning to Rome, Benedict XVI pointed out that the olive tree that they planted together in the garden of the presidential residence is “an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews.” The Church of the gentiles is the wild olive tree grafted onto the good olive tree, which is the people of the covenant. They are nourished by the same roots.

Curiously, in his final speech, the Jewish-Christian olive tree was the first image that Benedict XVI recalled in highlighting the moments of the trip that had left “powerful impressions” on him.

He followed this image with two more salient moments: the Yad Vashem memorial, and the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Both of these moments had brought criticism of the pope. At Yad Vashem, he was criticized for being vague and unemotional in describing and condemning the Holocaust, when in reality Benedict XVI – as impolitic as ever – had departed from the usual formulas in order to elaborate an original and profound reflection on the “names” of all of the victims of that time and of all time, since the time of Abel. These names are indelible, not so much because they are impressed upon human memories, but because they are kept alive irrevocably in God. In the Bible, the name signifies the person and mission of every creature.

On this point, in his final speech, pope Joseph Ratzinger implicitly replied to his critics by recalling his visit in 2006 to Auschwitz, “where so many Jews – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends – were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied.”

But most of all, the pope wanted to encourage drawing from reflection on the Holocaust another reason for reconciliation between Christians and Jews, again using the symbol of the olive tree: “those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree, nourished from the same roots and united in brotherly love.”

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As for the wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian Territories, many Jews criticize the Holy See for overlooking its purpose as a security barrier against terrorist attacks, and of siding with the Palestinians more than with the Israelis. In his final speech, the pope said this about the subject:

“One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall. As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation, but rather respecting and trusting one another, and renouncing all forms of violence and aggression.”

In saying this, Benedict XVI on the one hand recognized the sufferings that the barrier inflicts on the Palestinian people, but on the other, he explicitly acknowledged its nature as an “instrument of security” for Israel. And in order for the wall to be dismantled, he asked everyone to make the connection between security and mutual trust, as he had done on Monday, May 11, in Jerusalem, on the visit during which he planted the olive tree at the presidential residence, reflecting on the twofold meaning of the biblical word “betah.”

Moreover, again in the final speech at the airport of Tel Aviv, in calling for an end to war and terrorism, and expressing his hope for a “two-state solution,” the pope reiterated the necessity that “it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders.”

With this, pope Ratzinger met the request that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made of him the day before in Nazareth, in a closed-door conversation: to condemn Iran’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

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Presented below is the speech with which Benedict XVI concluded his trip, on Friday, May 15.

After that is the address that the pope gave that same morning in Jerusalem, in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the last stop of his pilgrimage to the holy places.

Benedict XVI delivered it immediately after kneeling to pray at the empty tomb of Jesus, the tomb of the resurrection.

And from the very beginning, he was careful to proclaim that apart from the risen Jesus, “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we are to be saved.”

These words are not a quote from “Dominus Iesus,” the declaration “on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and of the Church,” released in 2000 by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and criticized by many Jews, among others. They are the preaching of Peter, in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. And now they are the preaching of his successor.

For all of those who suffer in the land where Jesus lived, whether Jews or Arabs, Christians or Muslims, Benedict XVI left them with this thought, in front of the empty tomb of the Risen One:

“The empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the hope that does not disappoint because it is the gift of the Spirit of life. This is the message that I wish to leave with you today, at the conclusion of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”

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Farewell speech at the airport of Tel Aviv, May 15, 2009

by Benedict XVI

Mr President, Mr Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, as I prepare to return to Rome, may I share with you some of the powerful impressions that my pilgrimage to the Holy Land has left with me. […]

Mr President, you and I planted an olive tree at your residence on the day that I arrived in Israel. The olive tree, as you know, is an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans how the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant (cf. 11:17-24). We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.

The ceremony at the Presidential Palace was followed by one of the most solemn moments of my stay in Israel – my visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem to pay my respects to the victims of the Shoah. There I also met some of the survivors. Those deeply moving encounters brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, friends – were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied. On the contrary, those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree, nourished from the same roots and united in brotherly love.

Mr President, I thank you for the warmth of your hospitality, which is greatly appreciated, and I wish to put on record that I came to visit this country as a friend of the Israelis, just as I am a friend of the Palestinian people. Friends enjoy spending time in one another’s company, and they find it deeply distressing to see one another suffer. No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades. Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing. Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. And let peace spread outwards from these lands, let them serve as a “light to the nations” (Is 42:6), bringing hope to the many other regions that are affected by conflict.

One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall. As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation, but rather respecting and trusting one another, and renouncing all forms of violence and aggression. Mr President, I know how hard it will be to achieve that goal. I know how difficult is your task, and that of the Palestinian Authority. But I assure you that my prayers and the prayers of Catholics across the world are with you as you continue your efforts to build a just and lasting peace in this region.

It remains only for me to express my heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed in so many ways to my visit. To the Government, the organizers, the volunteers, the media, to all who have provided hospitality to me and those accompanying me, I am deeply grateful. Please be assured that you are remembered with affection in my prayers. To all of you, I say: thank you, and may God be with you. Shalom!

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Address in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, May 15, 2009

by Benedict XVI

Dear Friends in Christ, the hymn of praise which we have just sung unites us with the angelic hosts and the Church of every time and place – “the glorious company of the apostles, the noble fellowship of the prophets and the white-robed army of martyrs” – as we give glory to God for the work of our redemption, accomplished in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before this Holy Sepulchre, where the Lord “overcame the sting of death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers”, I greet all of you in the joy of the Easter season. […]

Saint John’s Gospel has left us an evocative account of the visit of Peter and the Beloved Disciple to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Today, at a distance of some twenty centuries, Peter’s Successor, the Bishop of Rome, stands before that same empty tomb and contemplates the mystery of the Resurrection. Following in the footsteps of the Apostle, I wish to proclaim anew, to the men and women of our time, the Church’s firm faith that Jesus Christ “was crucified, died and was buried”, and that “on the third day he rose from the dead”. Exalted at the right hand of the Father, he has sent us his Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. Apart from him, whom God has made Lord and Christ, “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Standing in this holy place, and pondering that wondrous event, how can we not be “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), like those who first heard Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost? Here Christ died and rose, never to die again. Here the history of humanity was decisively changed. The long reign of sin and death was shattered by the triumph of obedience and life; the wood of the Cross lay bare the truth about good and evil; God’s judgement was passed on this world and the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon humanity. Here Christ, the new Adam, taught us that evil never has the last word, that love is stronger than death, that our future, and the future of all humanity, lies in the hands of a faithful and provident God.

The empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the hope that does not disappoint because it is the gift of the Spirit of life (cf. Rom 5:5). This is the message that I wish to leave with you today, at the conclusion of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. May hope rise up ever anew, by God’s grace, in the hearts of all the people dwelling in these lands! May it take root in your hearts, abide in your families and communities, and inspire in each of you an ever more faithful witness to the Prince of Peace! The Church in the Holy Land, which has so often experienced the dark mystery of Golgotha, must never cease to be an intrepid herald of the luminous message of hope which this empty tomb proclaims. The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome, and that a future of justice, peace, prosperity and cooperation can arise for every man and woman, for the whole human family, and in a special way for the people who dwell in this land so dear to the heart of the Saviour.

This ancient Memorial of the Anástasis bears mute witness both to the burden of our past, with its failings, misunderstandings and conflicts, and to the glorious promise which continues to radiate from Christ’s empty tomb. This holy place, where God’s power was revealed in weakness, and human sufferings were transfigured by divine glory, invites us to look once again with the eyes of faith upon the face of the crucified and risen Lord. Contemplating his glorified flesh, completely transfigured by the Spirit, may we come to realize more fully that even now, through Baptism, “we bear in our bodies the death of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our own mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:10-11). Even now, the grace of the resurrection is at work within us! May our contemplation of this mystery spur our efforts, both as individuals and as members of the ecclesial community, to grow in the life of the Spirit through conversion, penance and prayer. May it help us to overcome, by the power of that same Spirit, every conflict and tension born of the flesh, and to remove every obstacle, both within and without, standing in the way of our common witness to Christ and the reconciling power of his love.

With these words of encouragement, dear friends, I conclude my pilgrimage to the holy places of our redemption and rebirth in Christ. I pray that the Church in the Holy Land will always draw new strength from its contemplation of the empty tomb of the Savior. In that tomb it is called to bury all its anxieties and fears, in order to rise again each day and continue its journey through the streets of Jerusalem, Galilee and beyond, proclaiming the triumph of Christ’s forgiveness and the promise of new life. As Christians, we know that the peace for which this strife-torn land yearns has a name: Jesus Christ. “He is our peace”, who reconciled us to God in one body through the Cross, bringing an end to hostility (cf. Eph 2:14). Into his hands, then, let us entrust all our hope for the future, just as in the hour of darkness he entrusted his spirit into the Father’s hands.

Allow me to conclude with a special word of fraternal encouragement to my brother Bishops and priests, and to the men and women religious who serve the beloved Church in the Holy Land. Here, before the empty tomb, at the very heart of the Church, I invite you to rekindle the enthusiasm of your consecration to Christ and your commitment to loving service of his mystical Body. Yours is the immense privilege of bearing witness to Christ in this, the land which he sanctified by his earthly presence and ministry. In pastoral charity enable your brothers and sisters, and all the inhabitants of this land, to feel the healing presence and the reconciling love of the Risen One. Jesus asks each of us to be a witness of unity and peace to all those who live in this City of Peace. As the new Adam, Christ is the source of the unity to which the whole human family is called, that unity of which the Church is the sign and sacrament. As the Lamb of God, he is the source of that reconciliation which is both God’s gift and a sacred task enjoined upon us. As the Prince of Peace, he is the source of that peace which transcends all understanding, the peace of the new Jerusalem. May he sustain you in your trials, comfort you in your afflictions, and confirm you in your efforts to proclaim and extend his Kingdom. To all of you, and to those whom you serve, I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of Easter joy and peace.