The Holy Father in the Holy Land

From May 8 to May 15, Pope Benedict XVI was on pilgrimage in Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and the State of Israel. The reports of his travels were filtered through the categories of political analysis, as is always the case with such reports, since politics is the highest frame of reference possible for the media. It is good, therefore, to step back and frame the story in the pope’s own terms, as a journey of faith.

While flying from Rome to Amman, Jordan, on May 8, the Holy Father mentioned four goals beyond his personal devotion that brought him to the Middle East. First, he wanted to contribute to the peace process, but as a religious and not a political leader. He could do this, he said, through prayer, which opens the world to God, through the formation of consciences and through stating truly reasonable positions that are distinct from those involved in political conversations. A good conscience perceives the truth, which is often left unseen and unstated because of particular interests. The church can, with God’s grace, help to liberate people from partisanship that leads to violence.

Second, the pope wanted to strengthen the church’s relation to the Jewish people by pointing out our common roots, despite our diverse histories. He said, “We should learn the language of the other.” We should as well learn from one another in dialogue. The love born in dialogue will help the quest for peace.

Pope Benedict pointed out, on arriving in Tel Aviv on May 11, that inter-religious communication and religion’s contribution to a just society require “a respect for the freedom and dignity of every human being, whom Christians, Muslims and Jews alike believe to be created by a loving God and destined for eternal life. When the religious dimension of the human person is denied or marginalized, the very foundation for a proper understanding of inalienable human rights is placed in jeopardy.”

He went on from stating the theoretical foundation for dialogue to reminding the world of the consequences of forgetting about the fundamental dignity of every human person: “It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.” This is not an anonymous general concern; it is stamped with the face of every victim of the Jewish Holocaust. At the Yad Vashem Memorial, the pope spoke of remembering the names of all those who died, names recorded in that Holocaust Memorial and others, along with photo after photo so that no one will be forgotten. He quoted the prophet Isaiah: “… I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off” (Is 56:5).

Third, the pope wanted to strengthen dialogue with Islam, “which was born in an environment where Judaism and various branches of Christianity … were present.” The pope made reference to his co-founding an agency for trilateral dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. He expressed special gratitude to the present King of Jordan, Abdullah II, for his untiring work to create a sound civil society in Jordan and to use religion as an instrument of peace.

The pope might have had in mind as well the recent visit paid to him by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has sponsored conferences for inter-religious dialogue in Saudi Arabia and in Spain. At the United Nations last November, the king spoke of the Islamic commitment to dialogue: “I can assure … all the states of the world, their peoples, their leaders and their organizations, that our concern for the dialogue stems from our Islamic faith and values and our compassion for the human condition in order to overcome its miseries.”

Fourth, Pope Benedict wanted to encourage Christians living in the Middle East: Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Without the presence of Christian believers, for whom the Holy Land is their homeland, the shrines would be museums. The Christian population has been steadily decreasing in this area in recent decades, yet Christians sponsor important institutions for health care and education and speak from a vantage point that is uniquely theirs. The pope said, “I hope that Christians are able to find the value, the humility, the patience to stay in these countries, to offer their contribution to their nation’s future.” Much of the physical infrastructure of the Catholic Church in Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel is supported through the generosity of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, an order of men and women strong in the Chicago archdiocese.

As the pope said at the beginning of his visit, he came not as a political power but as a spiritual force. Probably the closest he came to espousing a political opinion was at the very end of his visit, on May 15, when he thanked the president and government of Israel at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv: “Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. And let peace spread outwards from these lands, let them serve as a light to the nations” (Is 42:6), bringing hope to the many other regions that are affected by conflict.” Let that be our prayer too. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

Archbishop of Chicago

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Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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