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from issue no. 05 - 2009

BENEDICT XVI. Images, memories and assessment of his pilgrimage

“A blessing for everybody”

An interview with Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem: "In the gestures and words of the Pope, we found courage, truth, love, humility”

Interview with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal by Gianni Valente

Benedict XVI praying in the Grotto of the Nativity <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI praying in the Grotto of the Nativity
[© Osservatore Romano]

The Pope pilgrim in the Holy Land went with a light step through the tangle of human, political and religious happenings and passions that are concentrated today in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in the places where Jesus lived. Before his departure more than one person had shaken his head, considering the choice of a papal visit to a region where the wounds of war are still open to be risky.
Even for Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for little more than a year, the days of the papal pilgrimage were a kind of baptism by fire. With the sincerity that distinguishes him he had not hidden the doubts and worries that were circulating in the Catholic community of the Holy Land on the eve of the papal visit. Now, he makes an assessment for 30Days of quite a different sort.

Now that a little time has passed, what overall assessment would you make of the visit of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land?
FOUAD TWAL: It was a blessing for everybody. In the gestures and words of the Pope, we found courage, truth, love, humility.
Yet it was you who, before the visit, confirmed the doubts circulating in the Christian community.
TWAL: In effect there was some fear and some anxiety. The papal visit was to occur at a difficult moment in a difficult region, where in recent months there had been an overdose of awareness, after the war in Gaza. It was feared that one of the two parties in conflict might attempt to monopolize the visit.
What helped to ensure that didn’t happen?
TWAL: We expressed all our observations and reservations to the Holy See. And we are grateful to the Secretary of State who took account of our fears. And the speeches were very well made, balanced and at the same time marked by a courage that other political leaders do not have. Marked primarily by a love for this land and for the people who live here.
Is there is a particular image of the papal visit you preserve?
TWAL: One image alone doesn’t give the impression. I accompanied the Pope all the time, and I’d need an album... I was especially struck by the moments when he approached people, who maybe were awkward because they weren’t prepared for such an occasion. And so with all calm and a child’s face he greeted them with delicacy, showing himself to them in a familiar attitude. We were nervous and impatient in some situations. Whereas he was always calm.
Before the papal visit everyone insisted on its pastoral character. Perhaps to protect themselves from political exploitation.
TWAL: And in fact, in confirming the brethren in the faith, he recalled to us all the dimensions of the spiritual life of faith in the Holy Land: prayer, pilgrimage... He asked Christians not to leave for abroad, suggested that they remain, because our land is holy and beautiful. He also addressed all our Christian brethren. The two visits, that took place with all calm and humility, to the Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchates gave him the opportunity to say that there is no need to aggravate by our separation the many hurts this land has suffered and is suffering. Pope Benedict always placed emphasis on prayer as a means of asking the Lord for unity, leaving to Him the how and when it may be achieved.
Benedict XVI with Patriarch Fouad Twal in the Square of the Manger, 
where he celebrated Mass, Bethlehem, 13 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI with Patriarch Fouad Twal in the Square of the Manger, where he celebrated Mass, Bethlehem, 13 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

However, political aspects were also present.
TWAL: The political dimension is never lacking here in the Holy Land. And to his meetings with the authorities in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, there was certainly a political aspect. The Pope wanted to repeat that the Holy Land has its vocation of holiness. That’s what we would all like, but precisely for that reason one cannot ignore the concrete situation of the moment, which is a situation of conflict. I very much liked the last speech, addressed to President Peres, before departure. The Pope, without making abstract condemnations, said in a personal tone that during the visit which he had received the grace to make, one of the sights that had caused him most grief was that of the wall. A noble and peaceful way of saying with humility and love that such walls certainly don’t help to create an environment of peace, dialogue and hope.
Before the Pope’s visit you said it was like a beautiful cake of which everyone wanted to grab a piece. In the end, who took the biggest slice?
TWAL: We, the local Church, the Christian community here. He came to confirm us in our faith, in our mission, in our dialogue, in our grief, in our Way of the Cross. I believe that it was wonderful for our people to see that there is someone praying for them, thinking of them, and that this someone is the Pope! Benedict XVI has called the Church to think about the Holy Land, to come to the Holy Land. He exhorted us many times, both in Jordan and Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, not to be afraid, to realize that we are not forgotten. This charged up our batteries in splendid fashion.
And do you expect anything to change now?
TWAL: I’ve been asked by many people. It is not that miraculous changes are to be expected from the visit in itself. But by his words and his actions our beloved Holy Father has sown so much, both locally and at international level and at the level of the universal Church. With calm, with the grace of God and with the help of all our friends, starting with the sister Churches of Italy, the fruits will come. Many organizations are asking to meet me to find out what they can do for us. Now it’s also up to us to achieve the level of the Holy Father’s trust. And to do our job well here. During the celebration of Vespers in Nazareth, the Pope compared the situation of Christians in the Holy Land to that of Mary, who in Nazareth led a hidden life, “with very little in terms of wealth or worldly influence”. He urged us to have the courage “to be faithful to Christ and to remain here in the land that He sanctified by His presence”.
What do you think of the meeting between the Pope and the delegation from Gaza?
TWAL: Two hundred Christians were to come from Gaza. In >
TWAL: They laid hands on the funds of some schools in Galilee, which are used to pay teachers’ salaries. The nuncio, very wisely, did not want as diplomat to aggravate the situation or alarm public opinion. But there have been confiscations. Subsequently, government leaders have given assurances that there will be no other cases in the future. The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See has also said so. We are glad and thank the Israeli authorities. Moreover, there is an article in the General Agreement that says that while negotiations on the tax status of church property last, there can be no unilateral changes to the current situation. But there are some officials who maybe don’t know that... And as for that, in Israeli society there’ll never be a lack of those expressing regret at the Holy Father’s visit. Unlucky for them. We can’t do anything about it.
And on the other side, on the Hamas side?
TWAL: The reaction of the Hamas people to the Pope’s visit was very positive, especially when they heard that he was visiting a refugee camp, that he decided to take a stance alongside those who are suffering, to give a hope of return to all the refugees in the world. And if there is no return, that at least they may find just compensation and ways of living in peace and dignity.
Benedict XVI greeting the children of the Caritas Baby Hospital, Bethlehem, 13 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI greeting the children of the Caritas Baby Hospital, Bethlehem, 13 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

How would you compare this with the previous papal visits of Paul VI and John Paul II?
TWAL: I see no point in these comparisons. Their contexts, the people, the state of mind are different... Each Pope was good and did well in his moment. The right man in the right place, at the right time... And everything went well, thank God.
You will have heard Obama’s speech in Cairo...
TWAL: Fantastic.
What most convinced you, in that speech?
TWAL: We have been waiting so long for a change in thinking, speeches, approach. We might also not be one hundred percent in agreement, but Obama’s speech was clear, courageous, and concerned for the good of everybody, Israelis and Arabs, calling everyone to change approach and to have more trust in each other, in the future, in God. It was just what was needed.
Some people noted several points of contact between Obama’s speech and the things said by the Pope in the Holy Land.
TWAL: Yes. They both stressed key points. And Obama, when he spoke of the Palestinians, specified that they are Muslims and Christians.
Thank you, Your Beatitude.
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