When his plane touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Pope Benedict XVI became only the second pope in the history of the Catholic Church to officially visit the State of Israel.
Israeli, Jewish, and Vatican leaders expressed high hopes for a smooth visit that would enhance the Catholic-Jewish and Israel-Vatican relationships.
Yet almost from the minute he got off the plane, Benedict’s actions and words have been severely scrutinized, dissected, and criticized from all sides. This extraordinary level of public and media scrutiny has led to a series of controversies, expressions of dismay, and failed expectations by some Israeli leaders.
It must be recognized that Benedict is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the beloved Pope John Paul II, whose groundbreaking pilgrimage in March 2000 hit all the right notes and captured the hearts and minds of Jews and Catholics around the world. From the get-go it was always going to be unfair to measure Benedict’s trip by John Paul’s, especially since Benedict has stepped into a roiling political, religious, and social climate that is vastly changed from the more hopeful regional environment just nine years ago.
It is not only the region that is different. The two popes have vastly different personalities and public personas. Where the Polish-born John Paul II was a grand communicator able to project his charm and personal story to a wide audience, Benedict, a native of Germany, is a reserved theologian who conveys a professorial tone.
Beyond style, there are the words themselves. In this there is room for debate.
Prominent officials have sharply criticized Benedict’s much-anticipated speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for failing to live up to expectations.
When Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem he referenced the Nazis by name, condemned the murder of millions of victims, and mourned the loss of his Jewish friends. He met at length with 30 Polish Jewish survivors.
By contrast, Benedict failed to mention Nazis or Germany, as well as his own personal history in Germany during the war. He did not use the word murder and ignored the issue of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. A historic opportunity was squandered.
Yet a close examination of Benedict’s text and actions shows that he did deliver an appropriate speech focusing on the concepts of remembrance. He also met briefly with Holocaust survivors. It must be noted also that in recent months, Benedict has made strong statements repudiating Holocaust denial. And in the past, Benedict has talked about his personal experiences as a member of Hitler Youth and the Germany army.
Therefore, it would do well to keep things in perspective and recognize what this pope has said and done.
By coming to Israel at this time, the 82-year-old pontiff is solidifying the Vatican’s formal relationship with the State of Israel, launched when a historic diplomatic agreement was signed in 1993. His trip demonstrates the Church’s commitment to the security and survival of Israel as a Jewish state.
Benedict is also establishing a track record for future popes. No longer will Pope John Paul’s journey be able to be portrayed as an aberration or a personal mission. Indeed, Benedict’s trip will institutionalize that every pope visit Israel and commit the billion-member Roman Catholic Church to the importance of Israel as the Jewish state.
Benedict’s voyage also demonstrates the continuity of the Church’s commitment to enhance relations with the Jewish people. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was Pope John Paul’s chief theologian and, therefore, the many positive improvements in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past three decades were done in consultation with him.
To be sure, there are a series of outstanding serious issues challenging the Vatican-Jewish dialogue, including the recent troubling regressions in Catholic theology and liturgy about Judaism. Israel and the Vatican also have complicated property and tax issues to resolve.
However, the focus on this trip should be in recognizing the positive contributions of the current pope. Benedict has pledged to keep strengthening Catholic-Jewish relations and reaffirmed the Church’s unqualified repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. He has taught that Christians should gain a new respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. And he has asserted that God’s covenant and promises to the people of Israel are alive and irrevocable, further demonstrating his belief that the Jewish people “are beloved brothers and sisters.”
While we believe that Jews must remember and honor the past, we cannot change it. What we can do is create a future where Catholics and Jews deepen and expand our dialogue and work together with mutual respect and understanding in the interests of tikkun olam.