Papal Pilgrimage Ends With a Bang

Benedict XVI Sums Up Message in Packed Address

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By Father Thomas D. Williams, LC



JERUSALEM, MAY 15, 2009 (Zenit.org).- As I write this, Benedict XVI is flying back to Rome, having left Tel Aviv Airport less than an hour ago. Yet it turns out that his final send-off at the airport entailed more than a perfunctory adieu.

Benedict took advantage of his last meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres to reiterate the key messages of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This Pope -- whom many consider incapable of uttering a sound bite -- managed to condense his week’s message into an 859-word address that lasted no more than three minutes. Somehow in this brief interval he was able to encapsulate the gist of the 29 different encounters that he had throughout this action-packed week. It seemed as if he were back in the university classroom once again, summing up his day’s lecture to keep his more distracted students on track.

He wasted no time in getting back to the thorny issue of Catholic-Jewish relations, noting first how Christianity had grown out of Judaism. Benedict made reference to the olive tree that he and President Peres had planted together in the garden of the presidential palace earlier in the week. He drew a parallel to Saint Paul’s use of the olive tree as an image to express how the Christian Church was “grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant.” In words that could only facilitate Jewish-Christian dialogue, he reminded his hearers: “We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.”

From there Benedict moved to Monday’s Yad Vashem encounter, where the Holy Father had paid his respects to the many Jews who lost their lives in the Shoah as well as meeting with six Holocaust survivors. As if in answer to his critics who thought that Benedict had showed too little emotion at the meeting, the Pope called the encounter “deeply moving” and went on to evoke the memory of his visit three years earlier to the death camp at Auschwitz “where so many Jews -- mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends -- were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred.”

To put the final nail in the coffin, especially after his much-criticized lifting of the excommunication of Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson, the Pope stated: “That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied.”

That wasn’t the end of the emotions, however, as Benedict went on to use moving language in referring to the strife that still exists between Israelis and Palestinians. Benedict called himself a “friend of the Israelis,” as well as “a friend of the Palestinian people” and went on to say that no friend “can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades.”

In the strongest language of his entire visit, Benedict made an impassioned appeal: “No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing.”

Again, to leave no doubts what all this means in practical terms, Benedict declared his intentions in the clearest of terms. First, to those who still dispute Israel’s right to exist as a state, Benedict stated: “Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders.” Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had requested that the Pope denounce Iran on Israel’s behalf, especially regarding Iran’s repudiation of Israeli statehood. While avoiding mentioning Iran by name, Benedict lost no time in doing just that.

Moving on to the flip side of the relation, he said: “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. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream.”

If anyone still harbored doubts regarding Benedict XVI’s political aspirations for the Holy Land, this clear statement should leave little room for doubt. His final appeal, in fact, made the next practical step more concrete still. Returning to a theme that he had broached on Wednesday in Bethlehem, Benedict called the wall separating Palestinians from Israelis “one of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands.” Acknowledging “how hard it will be to achieve that goal,” Benedict said that he had prayed, and that Catholics would continue to pray, “for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation.”

For anyone looking for a concise summary of Benedict’s weeklong trip to the Holy Land, and especially the second leg in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Benedict himself provided the material. Benedict’s goodwill and intentions are evident. It remains to be seen what kind of reception this message will receive in the hearts of his hearers.

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Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, an American theologian living in Rome, is providing commentary for CBS News on Benedict XVI's historic visit to the Holy Land. He is offering a chronicle of his trip for ZENIT as well.