Benedict’s Windswept Holy Land
There is very little room for error for the Pope when it comes to public life.
As the Pope nears his visit to Israel, scheduled Monday, he is making a few quick visits to other significant sites in the Middle East. The coming days pose perhaps the greatest risk taken during Benedict XVI’s Pontificate so far, diplomatically, theologically and physically.
Today he was in Jordan, where he paid his respects at Bethany, the site of Jesus’ baptism. The visit was used by Muslims as an opportunity to remind themselves how offended they still are that Benedict insulted their faith back in 2006 when he made a speech, quoting Manuel II Palaiologos, Byzantine Emperor during the 14th and 15th centuries:
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
Not only did the words of the speech cause offense, but the giving of credence to Palaiologos himself, since he was a strong supporter of the Crusades against the Ottoman empire. Pope Benedict XVI apologized profusely, but of course, apologies and forgiveness do not stand out as the most notable aspects of modern-day monotheism outside of Christianity. Indeed, the Pope’s words condemning violence as “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul” were met with none other than violence against churches in Muslim countries. It’s a sad fact that people are not taught the ability to recognize that the criticism of an idea does not equate to a personal affront.
But in fairness to Muslims around the world, it has to be emphasized that most people, everywhere, are not interested in violence. It is almost universal that people prefer simply to be let alone, as long as they are given basic freedoms and fair treatment. Yet there are groups, ideologies and nations which, in the pursuit of power, will try to undermine the enemy by fomenting extremism in its camp, since extremism, being irrational and emotional, tends to weaken society by preventing reasoned and logical decision making. This needs to be kept in mind when the voice of extremist groups is portrayed in the media, be it on Muslim matters or any other matters. Those who benefit are rarely the ones purportedly represented by the extremist groups. In these cases, it’s fair to ask: Who do the groups really serve? Who really controls those groups?
The Pope’s visit to Jordan is like a walk in the city park in broad daylight when compared with what could happen when he arrives in the Holy Land, where the plight of the native Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, is desperate as never before, and the rise of nationalistic and religious pride is at historic highs amongst Israelis.
Criticism of a Papal visit to Israel during this time has come from all sides. Muslims are against it for a number of reasons, particularly from the point of view that such a visit gives the State of Israel the appearance of legitimacy. Palestinians are against it, because they can see that the Pope is very unlikely to say anything in their defense during his visit (probably out of fear). He is not touring Gaza, for example, where supplies for rebuilding remain so inadequate that the starving population is resorting to building houses out of mud. Christians in Israel are against it, because the Pope’s visit may well make life for them even worse, particularly if the Pope makes any diplomatic “blunders”, such as criticizing the ill-treatment of his flock or complaining about the damage done to historic sites in recent times, such as occurred during the siege at the Church of the Nativity. Jews are also against it, accusing the Pope of being an anti-semite:
Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union party said the parliament should state its position on the Catholic spiritual leader, who he claimed “is an anti-Semite, was a member of the Hitler youth and returned a Holocaust-denying bishop to the church.” He also said the pontiff continues to blame the Jewish people for the killing of Jesus.
Indeed the Pope has not been very compliant in appeasing his elder brothers, failing to boycott the recent UN Racism Conference, and removing the excommunication on the current bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X. Affection for the Pope in Israel could not be said to be at an all time high, that is for sure. His visit must pose a logistic nightmare to the Israeli Government, which is imposing the equivalent of martial law on the streets. It will not make it at all easy for him to stray down an incorrect street or alleyway. Not only might it be a bit embarrassing, but it’s also rather unsafe.
So when Pope Benedict XVI visits Israel next week, what will he achieve? What can he achieve?
The media talks about things like engendering dialogue, healing rifts, building bridges and so forth. The Pope wants to promote religious “freedom”, a concept which, while obviously aimed towards reducing the persecution of Christians, has the downfall of not having a valid theological basis (especially in the broad and incorrect way it is described in Gaudium et spes). It would appear that, given the failure of anyone else to improve things in Israel, the Pope has even less hope of doing so. The whole visit will have been very carefully planned and highly scripted. Jerusalem will be teeming with Israeli security officers, and it’s unlikely the Pope will get to see anything but that which it was intended for him to see. In many respects, the entire visit will have been a charade and entirely meaningless.
But the Pope’s physical presence there may, in the end, have a great impact. He is only a human being, and an elderly, frail one at that, but he is an intellectual, a man whose opinion is recognized as considered and deliberate. Despite the rehearsed nature of his visit, he himself may learn a great deal about his enemies, many of whom he possibly mistakes as friends. While the vast majority of Israelis and Muslims recognize a message of peace when they hear one, there are many who do not. They are the greatest threat, and the ones whom the Pope ought to keep at the forefront of his thinking when he speaks.
Benedict is a brave man, since he is, no doubt, aware of the risks he is taking. He also comes accross as a holy man; prayerful and well versed in scripture and theology. Yet there is still an element of mystery about his thinking, since many of his statements and actions regarding relations with Judaism and Islam have seemed contradictory and confused. At one moment he may come across as direct and blunt, yet at another he manages to speak and say nothing, like the most skilful of politicians.
During the visit, it will be interesting to dissect Benedict’s words and tease out the nuances. Most of it will be dull, like the visit of a monarch to a colony – full of diplomatic statements. The trip might turn out to have been a waste of time, even a mistake. But there is always the hope that he manages to do the improbable; to offend everyone at the same time, by speaking the simple, direct, and unashamed truth.