When it comes to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in Jerusalem this week, there is much skepticism on both sides of the Israeli wall. The average Israeli “doesn’t care” about the pope’s trip, says Gershon Baskin, president of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information. The expectation is that the pope will say something about the Holocaust, and then issue another apology, or acknowledge the Church’s ‘failure’ to do enough for the Jews. Without question, Baskin said, the Israeli government will spin the visit politically, anxious to avoid criticism for their actions against Palestinians.
Nor were most Palestinians looking forward to the pope’s visit. Unlike in Jordan, where the small but vibrant Christian community enjoys freedom of worship in a predominantly Muslim world, life for Palestinians is dominated by Israel.
But the pope is not in Israel to brow beat, nor is this a reparative visit. Those who think he will unveil a fresh diplomatic initiative will be disappointed. The situation in Israel is such that, without recourse to reason grounded in truth and prayer, no mere social or political measure will be adequate to the task of peace.
Responding to reporters in the papal entourage, Benedict set the tone of his trip in listing prayer, formation of conscience, and recourse to reason as the principles for dialogue. “As believers we are convinced that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history,” he said. Secondly, “we can shape people’s conscience, their capacity to understand the truth.” And finally, we can use reason to help people understand what principles are true.
With improved relations, religious freedom, and peace in the Middle East at the heart of Benedict’s intentions for the trip, there are four things we need to keep in mind during the pope’s stay in the Holy Land:
1. The pope’s primary intention is to pray. “Prayer,” he said, “is hope in action. And in fact true reason is contained in prayer: We come into loving contact with the one God, the universal Creator, and in so doing we come to realize the futility of human divisions and prejudices and we sense the wondrous possibilities that open up before us when our hearts are converted to God’s truth, to his design for each of us and our world.”
Benedict’s visit to Yad Vashem, along with a trip to the Dome of the Rock, will make waves in the region. As a German and as pope, his presence at Yad Vashem will be both historic and deeply personal. Benedict’s own life has been shaped by the Holocaust and its legacy of suffering. Almost irrespective of his words, the visit will undoubtedly bolster his relations with Jews, which are already strong, and encourage the many grassroots efforts to foster peace. Any honest Vatican affairs observer will agree that Jewish delegations receive almost as much attention from the pope as bishops and heads of state.
2. Pope Benedict brings the gift of his own presence. As Peter, the pope will be praying in a place that literally bears the name of peace: “Jeru-salem” means “city of peace.”
As he said in his address at Our Lady Queen of Peace Center in Amman, he comes as a pilgrim, “not . . . bearing gifts or offerings” but “simply with an intention, a hope: to pray for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East. Peace for individuals, for parents and children, for communities, peace for Jerusalem, for the Holy Land, for the region, peace for the entire human family; the lasting peace born of justice, integrity and compassion, the peace that arises from humility, forgiveness and the profound desire to live in harmony as one.”
In this regard, we can expect the pope to encourage the Christian community to find unity first among themselves. While Christian charities like the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, and Bethlehem University, are living examples of prayer in action, Christian leaders need first to fully support and encourage one another in healing the broader conflict.
How effective he will be here will depend greatly on the actions of Israeli officials; they have, for example, thwarted any attempt for the pope to visit Gaza. Some Gazans may be given permits to the Mass by the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, during Pope John Paul II’s Jubilee year trip, those few Gazans permitted out were sped through Palestine on a bus at dangerous speeds (which resulted in an accident on the way home), and were forced to leave Mass before it ended, depriving them of the opportunity to speak with the pope.
And that means . . .
3. The impact of the pope’s visit will depend largely on images. In a region of the world where language barriers, cultural differences, and media miscommunication create considerable obstacles, imagery will be the primary language.
In his visit to the Our Lady Queen of Peace Center in Jordan, the visuals were striking: Young and old, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim gathered in an atmosphere of joyful anticipation. Significantly, a boy with Down’s Syndrome reached out and embraced the pope; the pontiff, touched, responded in kind. In the Middle East, people with disabilities are often marginalized. Following the encounter, the pope observed that those who came to Regina Pacis — which provides education and vocational training free of charge to people with disabilities and their families — have lives marked by suffering, trial, and rejection.
4. The long-term success of the pope’s visit will depend on the local Church. In order to stave off the mass exodus of Christians from the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians must work to build on his message. Local Church leaders need to be creative in their approaches to renewal among their own community. While the loss of holy sites is tragic, the loss of vitality among Christians is even more so. Years of oppression and victimization have created a deep-seated bitterness.
As Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said at the recent synod on scripture in Rome:
In order to remain true to the life and mission of the Church, we must personally be changed by this Word. The Church must resemble the mother, who is both sustained by and nourished through the food she eats. . . . When the world does not share the joy of Christ’s Resurrection, this is an indictment of our own integrity and commitment to the living Word of God. . . . The challenge before us is the discernment of God’s Word in the face of evil, the transfiguration of every last detail and speck of this world in the light of Resurrection. The victory is already present in the depths of the Church, whenever we experience the grace of reconciliation and communion. As we struggle — in ourselves and in our world — to recognize the power of the Cross, we begin to appreciate how every act of justice, every spark of beauty, every word of truth can gradually wear away the crust of evil.
The people in the region respect practical solutions more than words. Such things exist in neighboring Jordan due in no small measure to the insistence of the Royal Family that intra- and interreligious dialogue take place, and religious freedom and human rights be respected.
The challenge is to inspire something similar in Israel and Palestine.
Irene Lagan is a journalist for Vatican Radio and a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.