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Religion and Society

Ratzinger realism

A lesson in realism. Such were the eight days of Benedict XVI in the Holy Land. With intrepid courage he placed his hand on the burning contradictions of that grieving land, with the inflexible energy of one who does not give up because he knows that he can build with new bricks. He risked in the first person without worldly calculations of success or failure. His journey was a priori 'politically incorrect'.



Whence this realism? Benedict XVI placed himself in a long line of Christian pilgrims to the holy places. He walked in the footsteps of the Son of God made flesh, who died and rose again. He trod the palpitating footprints of the suffering of the Christians who live there.



In the name of the whole of the Catholic Church he embraced the Christian communities of that strip of the Middle East, "'lit candles' that light up the holy places". But this embrace - specifically because carried out in the name of he who is the Way to the Truth and Life - involved, albeit necessarily at a different level, those Jewish and Muslim brethren who live in that land, given by the father to everyone - Abraham. It is the universal claim of Christ that leads the Christian faith to comparison with every religion, with every vision of the real.



Here in synthesis is how I read the journey of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land: a pilgrim out of humble, intelligent courage, he wanted to be the Pietrine protagonist of the whole of the Church. At Yad Vashem he immediately involved in his pain the "Catholic Church, committed to the teachings of Jesus and intent on imitating his love for all people", which "feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here". The force of his silence in that abyss of pain and his all-consuming invocation that no name of a victim of that abominable Nazi extermination should be lost did not seek to be one made by Joseph Ratzinger alone but much more powerfully one of all Christians called, beyond their limits, to fraternal solidarity with the chosen people. I have never forgotten the words which Cardinal Henri de Lubac said to me in faraway 1985: if Christianity has to acculturate, given that at our roots there is the Jewish people, then one must acculturate in the history, which is still underway, of this people.



The singular and privileged bond that unites Christianity to Judaism found a significant expression in the comment that the Pope offered on a passage from the Prophet Isaiah. For obvious reasons, the subject of security is especially felt in Israel and is continually evoked in internal debate. This is, therefore, a quintessentially political subject, perhaps the subject of this season in the Middle East, and the Holy Father chose not to withdraw from the analysis. However he did so approaching it from a very special perspective: that of Holy Scripture. In the language of the Jewish Bible, security and trust - he observed to President Peres - are strictly connected. For Scripture there is no security without trust. Could one imagine a more topical lesson? 'His mercies are not spent': from perhaps the most tragic book of the Bible, Jeremiah, Benedict XVI, drew his invitation to hope.



In Jordan a decisive commitment in favour of dialogue appeared evident in the words that Prince Ghazi addressed to the Pope at the al-Hussein Ibn Talal mosque. At the heart of the speech of the Prince, something that is totally surprising for we Westerners, was a cardinal value of the Middle East: that hospitality that evokes the essentially relational nature of human society.



On the raised mound around the mosques in Jerusalem, Benedict XVI took up the subject of dialogue and referred to the faith in the One Creator and to the figure of Abraham: "The Dome of the Rock draws our hearts and minds to reflect upon the mystery of creation and the faith of Abraham. Here the paths of the world's three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common. Each believes in One God, creator and ruler of all. Each recognizes Abraham as a forefather, a man of faith upon whom God bestowed a special blessing".



The Pope addressed the burning question of inter-religious dialogue through two cornerstones. Turning to the relationship between reason and religion, Benedict XVI strongly stressed the need for each to be purified by the other. Religion must allow itself to be questioned by religion so as not to fall into superstition or to be used by political power, but reason, too, must know how to open itself up to the dimension of the Absolute. A reason blind to the divine: this is the great risk that in today's world believers are called to avert with their shared witness. Secondly, Benedict emphasised that "the particular contribution of religions to the quest for peace lies primarily in the wholehearted, united search for God. Ours is the task of proclaiming and witnessing that the Almighty is present and knowable even when he seems hidden from our sight".



Two phrases in this speech struck me in particular because of their ability to adhere to the provocations of reality: the search for God as a condition for peace and the urgent need for personal and community witness. It is within this framework that the peremptory statement of the Holy Father at the Aida refugee camp should be placed: "Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian State, remain unfulfilled…In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected".



But to end what seems to have left the most impression during the whole of the itinerary of the Pope in a land which is an open nerve of mankind was his care, charged with hope, for the inhabitants of the Holy Land. "Your homeland", and these are the words of Benedict XVI spoken during the Holy Mass at Bethlehem, "needs not only new economic and community structures, but most importantly, we might say, a new "spiritual" infrastructure, capable of galvanizing the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development and the promotion of the common good. You have the human resources to build the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children. This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!"



The sensitive and intense face of the Pope, kneeling in front of the cleft in which was driven Jesus' cross, more than closing this pilgrimage opened up for all men of good will an effective pathway to untie the Middle Eastern knot. The simple will certainly know how to find it. Will the powerful of this world want to learn from the meek, constructive energy of Benedict XVI?