Everyone in the Holy Land, both Israelis and Christians, Jews and Muslims, still had clear in their minds the pilgrimage of John Paul II in the year 2000 and it was taken for granted that the gestures and words of the two pontiffs were going to be compared. The Holy Land, as is known, is a place where passions often prevail. The lukewarm approach of Israeli public opinion was foreseeable. However, in Palestinian society as well, and not only on the part of Muslims but also on the part of Christians, the announcement of the visit of the Pope had initially been received with a little coldness. With the bloody conflict in Gaza finished only a few months previously, it was feared that some gesture of the Holy Father could be exploited for one or other party, thereby damaging the position of the Christians. This was a fear that was soon dispelled by the words of the Pope. The visit of the Pope had initially not been understood in all its pastoral importance, despite the efforts that the local Church had made during the months in preparing for it. Well, the Holy Father had clear and sincere words for everyone, as a true friend, brother and father. Once again he demonstrated that he is a practical man.
The visit of Benedict XVI took place at three levels: the first, which was eminently pastoral, concerned the local Christian community; the second bore upon ecumenical dialogue (with the sister Churches) and inter-religious dialogue (with Jews and Muslims); and the third was, inevitably, political.
From a pastoral point of view, the balance was certainly on the positive side. The Holy Father gave ample visibility to the Christian community and renewed, in the name of whole of the Church, nearness to, and solidarity with, the Christians of the Holy Land. The first public Holy Mass was celebrated in Jerusalem in the valley of Jehoshaphat, beneath the very beautiful walls of the Holy City, a few yards away from the Golden Gate, and in front of Gethsemane, a place charged with history and closely connected with the Old and New Testaments, where, according to tradition, the Final Judgement will take place. The Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated to point out that despite the difficulties believers must look at life that triumphs; and in Jerusalem as well, despite the pain and the suffering.
The Pope’s words of encouragement to the small and frail Christian community were moving: “I hope my presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten, that your persevering presence and witness are indeed precious in God’s eyes and integral to the future of these lands” (homily at the Holy Mass in the Valley of Josaphat, 12 May 2009).
Indeed, being Christians in the Holy Land is not easy: a ‘special perseverance’ is required and for this reason the Pope encouraged the local faithful with the injunction that was held dear by John Paul II, “do not be afraid”, and encouraged them to engage in the noble ‘enterprise’ of building ‘the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children’. An enterprise that is more important than economic and political structures, this ‘new “spiritual” infrastructure’ must be “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” (homily at Manger’s Square, Bethlehem, 13 May 2009). It was for this reason that Benedict XVI told the bishops on the occasion of the prayer of Regina Coeli held at the Cenaculum (12 May 2009): “rely upon my support and encouragement in doing everything in your power to help our Christian brothers and sisters to stay and establish themselves here, in the land of their ancestors”, entrusting them at the same time to the support and memory of Christians throughout the world.
Whereas in Jerusalem the imposing security measures impeded many Christians from taking part in the celebration, in Bethlehem and Nazareth the Pope was received with very great enthusiasm and affection and was able to embrace the various communities that make up the small but highly coloured Christian mosaic of the Holy Land. The speeches of the Pope will be subjects of reflection on the part of all the Christian communities during the next pastoral year.
Ties and Meetings
This visit was also characterised by ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. As regards the relationship with the Orthodox Churches (above all the Greek and ¬Armenian Orthodox Churches), it should be said that the Holy Father was received in a serene and friendly climate. The fact should not be ignored that very often in the habitual meetings between the various Churches of the Holy Land it is specifically the representatives of the Orthodox Churches who express appreciation for the figure of Benedict XVI, remind us of some of his speeches, and share his positions on various issues of public life.
As regards Judaism, the Pope stressed that there is an inseparable tie with it, the same that exists in a tree with its roots, boughs and branches. The Holy Father went to the Hall of Remembrance of the Museum of the holocaust and to the Wailing Wall. His words and his silences were closely followed by the Israeli press. The disappointments, however, had already been foreseen by the Church. The perspectives of the one side, and the expectations of the other, were different. When visiting the memorial of the Holocaust, Benedict XVI wanted to remember the horror that still today the memory of the extermination provokes in the common conscience and offered a reflection centred around its ‘name’ which remains indelible and its ‘memory’. Israel, instead, expected a more specific reflection, the taking of a personal stance, which it was not able to see, at least to begin with, in his speech. In reality, the Pope has expressed himself more clearly on the Shoah repeatedly and on various occasions. If one reads the speeches together, one perceives very well both their unitary character and the clarity has been expressed in relation to this very sensitive subject.
The condemnation of the Shoah and the reference to the extermination of six million Jews was expressed at the outset, on his arrival in Tel Aviv, during the reception ceremony: “It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honour the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude. Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat ¬anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe” (welcoming ceremony at the Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, 11 May 2009). Similar words were pronounced at the end of his visit before he returned to Italy. Only recently has there developed a more serene and less emotional reflection on the speeches of that intense week, within Israeli institutions as well.
In Jordan, where the first part of the papal visit took place, the meeting with the exponents of the Muslim world were characterised by great courtesy and affability. In Israel, where the political-social and religious situation is much more delicate, an exact perception of the state of dialogue was possible. The inter-religious encounter which took place in Jerusalem was difficult and tense because of the action of an important exponent of the Muslim world and which was not present in the programme. An initiative of the same kind which was held in Nazareth, on the other hand, took place serenely and demonstrated that it is possible to engage in encounter. These were the two occasions that involved inter-religious dialogue in the Holy Land and this dialogue was characterised by easy forms of exploitation at a political level. But they were also marked by the participation of ordinary people who were moved by a sincere wish for encounter.
The Courage of a Pilgrim
With respect to the political level, the Holy Father managed to make himself the spokesman for the questions of everyone, both Israelis and Palestinians. To both the parties of the conflict the Pope stressed the insensate character of any shedding of blood, of terrorism and of war. A very strong moment, certainly, was when the Pope went across the dividing wall in order to make a visit to the Palestinian refugee camp of Aida, near Bethlehem. The words of the Pope in that occasion could not have been clearer. I am happy to observe how specifically on that occasion the Pope referred to ‘the charismatic figure of St. Francis, a great apostle of peace and reconciliation’ and thanked the whole of the Franciscan family for all the concern that it shows for people who suffer. It should be added that the Pope spoke about the right of the Palestinian people to independence and spoke against the dividing wall, not only in Bethlehem – something that was overall to be taken for granted – but also directly and indirectly to the Israelis themselves: “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… One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall” (farewell ceremony at the Ben Gurion international airport, Tel Aviv, 15 May 2009).
But politics is not the key to understanding the meaning of this visit. Benedict XVI wanted to define his visit as a pilgrimage and he came here in the footsteps of very many pilgrims who have traversed this land down the centuries until the present day. Pilgrims, without engaging in any false rhetoric, are men of hope and of peace. They pass through countries where, as is the case with Israel and Palestine, peace does not reign, but they go, trusting in men, in ordinary people. And they cross frontiers, even the most difficult ones, because they have come to be pilgrims: men who place themselves with simplicity and truth in front of other men. They want only to pass by, to walk, to reach a destination, praying in certain places and encountering the different faces to be seen in this land. This is important for them but it is equally important and perhaps even more so for all the people they encounter: “I came as a pilgrim of peace. Pilgrimage is an essential element of many religions and also of Islam, of the Jewish religion and of Christianity. It is also the image of our existence that is moving forward towards God and hence towards the communion of humanity” (interview of the Holy Father Benedict XVI during the flight from the Holy Land to Rome, 15 May 2009).
The Pope came: he was received with gentlemanly familiarity in Jordan and looked at the Promised Land from above, from the Negus. He arrived in a Jerusalem that was perhaps overly protected at the level of security. In Bethlehem, despite the enormous difficulties that this town experiences, he found relief in the warm welcome that was given to him at every stage of the day. Then Nazareth, with so many people, both at the Holy Mass in the amphitheatre built in front of the Mountain of the Precipice and at the Basilica of the Annunciation for vespers. And then the strong message of hope in front of the empty tomb in the Basilica of the Resurrection. So many meetings, so many speeches: so many lessons that we should reflect upon, helped by this Holy Land, with our people.
What do we hope for? We hope that his words, all his words, will not be forgotten and that each one of us can imitate him in being a friend, 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” (farewell ceremony at the Ben Gurion international airport, Tel Aviv, 15 May 2009).
An image captures the impression of frailty and strength that characterises the Holy Father: after arriving at the bottom of the narrow steps that come down from Calvary, he was surrounded by the security men. A man almost threw himself against them, ending up by being thrown to the ground. With the same speed the Pope raised his hands and did not lower them. The security forces allowed him to pass. He went up to that man, bent down towards him, took his hands and began to speak to him. Perhaps the two did not understand each other’s words. But all of us understood that gesture of the Pope.