Monday, May 11, 2009

The Pope in Israel

Monday - Salve, Shalom


On the blustery morning of January 5, 1964, president Zalman Shazar and prime minister Levi Eshkol stood ready to "unofficially" welcome the first head of the Catholic Church to the Jewish state.

Pope Paul VI crossed into northern Israel via the Ta'anech gate, near Megiddo, from the Jordanian-held West Bank. Such was the excitement that local cinema houses advertised newsreel screenings of the visit within 24 hours of the pontiff's departure.

A day earlier, in a story datelined "Jerusalem, Jordan," UPI reported that the pope was practically trampled on his visit to the Via Dolorosa "when hysterically excited crowds pressed in upon him," and later escaped harm "when the arc-light cables in the church of the Holy Sepulcher caught fire while he was saying mass. Many pilgrims and worshipers were injured in the pushing, thrusting, shouting crowds whose unruliness at times threatened to overwhelm the 66-year-old pontiff…"

On the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Line, the pope was determined not to utter the name "Israel," nor hold any formal meetings with the Israelis - not even with chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim. The Vatican did not recognize the Jewish state.

Pope Paul conducted Mass in Nazareth and dipped his hands in the Sea of Galilee. Then he made his way to western Jerusalem, thousands of Israelis lining the roads; 25,000 awaited him at the entrance to the city.

Just 111⁄2 hours after arriving, the pope stood before the Mandelbaum Gate connecting divided Jerusalem, ready to take his leave.

The area was floodlit and 5,000 well-wishers came to bid him farewell. The president and prime minister were there, as were religious affairs minister Zerah Warhaftig and Jerusalem mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom.

In brief farewell remarks delivered in French, the pope chose to dwell on the controversial figure who was pontiff during the Holocaust: "Our great predecessor Pius XII… everybody knows what he did for the defense and the rescue of all those who were caught in [the war's] tribulations, without distinction; and yet you know suspicions and even accusations have been leveled again the memory of the great pontiff… [This is a] slight against history."

Back in Rome, the pope sent a thank-you cable to Israel's president in "Tel Aviv," thanking nameless "authorities" for their logistical assistance during his visit.

AS Israel greets Pope Benedict XVI today, we cannot fail to recall, fondly, the March 2000 visit of pope John Paul II; how, standing at the Western Wall, the leader of the Catholic Church stuffed a note into a crevice among the ancient stones imploring God's forgiveness for those who had caused Jews to suffer throughout ages.

Clearly, any appraisal of relations between the Church and the Zionist enterprise must take a long view - from the January 25, 1904 meeting between Theodor Herzl and Pius X, at which the pontiff refused to support Zionism or recognize the Jewish people; to December 30, 1993, when the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Israel; to Benedict's arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport this morning.

The conclusion? There has been more progress in Catholic-Jewish relations during the past 105 years than in the previous 2,000.

Yet there is no papering over the reality that relations under this pope have not been entirely smooth. Elected in April 2005, Benedict pledged to continue in John Paul's path to have the Church recognize Pius XII as a saint. Benedict also tacitly encouraged the Latin Good Friday prayer "For the Conversion of the Jews," used by ultra-traditionalists. And he lifted the excommunication of four bishops belonging to the reactionary Society of Saint Pius X, which rejects reconciliation with the Jews. One of the four, the British-born Richard Williamson, is an unregenerate Holocaust-denier.

Since these contretemps Benedict has, however, reiterated his commitment to Vatican II's more liberal line, strongly repudiated anti-Semitism, called the Shoah "a crime against God" and labeled Holocaust denial "intolerable."

From now until he leaves Friday, the pope's every pronouncement will be scrutinized. On Mount Nebo, where tradition holds God showed Moses the Promised Land, Benedict made a promising start, citing the "inseparable bond" between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and speaking about "reconciliation" and "mutual respect."

It is in this spirit that we welcome the Holy Father.

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