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from issue no. 05 - 2009

BENEDICT XVI. Images, memories and assessment of his pilgrimage

“…and out of the strong came forth sweetness”

The Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See compares Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land with those of Paul VI in 1964 and of John Paul II in 2000. And he quotes the riddle from the Book of Judges to explain the present relationship between the Jewish State and Rome

by Mordechay Lewy

Benedict XVI with the Israeli President Shimon Peres, plants an olive tree in the garden of the presidential residence in Jerusalem, 11 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI with the Israeli President Shimon Peres, plants an olive tree in the garden of the presidential residence in Jerusalem, 11 May 2009 [© Osservatore Romano]

It is rewarding to compare the three papal visits, as we can draw some conclusions on the state of bilateral relations. In 1964, the visit of Paul VI was a clear expression of a non-recognition policy. Nostra Aetate had not yet been promulgated. The aim of the visit, beyond the act of pilgrimage, was the meeting with the Greek-Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. The result was the removal of the historical excommunication of the Greek Orthodox Church one year later. The Papal visit of John Paul II in 2000, on the other hand, was in the framework of the Second Millennium festivities. The long-time pre-announced Papal visit took place without a formal invitation. It was as if Papa Wojtyla had set himself in motion and later, knocking at Israel’s door, announced, “I’m coming – are you at home?” The personal desire of the Pope overruled any objections on the part of his advisors and of the local Catholics. The program included, not only acts of recognition by visiting the President at his official residence in Jerusalem. His personal affection towards Jews was visible, as he stayed longer than planned at Yad Vashem, speaking with Jews from Krakov who had survived the Holocaust. His dramatic gesture of asking forgiveness from God at the Western Wall shaped the future impact of his historical visit. At the same time, not everyone in the Vatican was happy with this gesture, which might have had for them far-reaching theological implications. In November 2008, the first operative steps were set in motion in order to implement Pope Benedict’s long standing desire to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and to perform a pastoral visit and an act of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the first requests, after being so often invited verbally, was for official invitations from all heads of state in question (i.e. the King of Jordan, the President of Israel and the President of the PA). With those invitations in pocket, he was also giving his visit a political dimension, having been invited by his colleagues – the heads of state. This served mainly as additional corroboration of a trend of the Holy See to assume a special position as a political player. The additional gestures, which could mean an upgrading of bilateral relations with Israel, were taken into account.
Benedict XVI greets the Israeli Ambasssador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, Jerusalem, 12 May 2009 <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI greets the Israeli Ambasssador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, Jerusalem, 12 May 2009
[© Osservatore Romano]

By and large, the visit of 2000 served as a model for the Papal program in 2009. The slight changes were more of a non-political nature but, rather, due to logistical considerations. Neither “Operation Cast Lead” nor the Williamson affair, neither the elections in Israel nor the historical dispute about Pius XII, at any given moment endangered the Papal visit of Benedict. Potential minefields, such as a visit to the exhibition about Pius XII in the Yad Vashem museum, were excluded in advance. An uncontrolled initiative of the Rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, not to allow the bearing of crosses during the Papal visit, was thwarted at an early stage. The preparations continued discreetly without interruption. As in the past, the local Catholics were the least excited initially about the visit. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Twal had to campaign for the visit. On the other side, the Jewish world was cooperative and joined Israel in accepting the explanatory remarks given by State Secretary Bertone regarding Williamson’s Holocaust denial. In his exceptional letter to his Bishops, Benedict expressed thanks to Jewish friends for showing understanding, an attitude which, according to him, many Catholics were not ready to show. Many critics within the Church and in the media watched every move of Pope Benedict in order to “celebrate” another potential mishap. With this background in mind, the overall success of the visit counts even more. Vatican diplomacy performed at its best during the visit. The state secretariat tried to accommodate the sensitivities of Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians, each upon its own merits, as much as it could. Only requests which put the Vatican’s own interests in jeopardy were boldly rejected.
For Israel, Benedict’s visit was of a historical dimension, and not only because it actually took place. Israel holds the present Pope in high esteem as very friendly towards Jews, as well as for the interfaith dialogue he promotes with us. It seems that his visit has molded a tradition that any future Pope may visit the Holy Land and Israel. The program of John Paul II is likely to remain as the model for visits to come. Pope Benedict’s statements will nourish our future relations for a long time. His clear words against Holocaust denial and for combating anti-Semitism, moreover, his commitments to the dialogue with the “elder brother” in the spirit of Nostra Aetate, will also hopefully reach Catholic quarters in the third world.
Bearing the events of the past year in mind, we can articulate our present state of bilateral affairs with Samson’s riddle from the Book of Judges (14:14):
…and out of the strong came forth sweetness.

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