Some months have passed since the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land [March 2000]. The din of the mass media that surrounded the event, sometimes to the point of being irritating, has fortunately ceased. As the racket of fax machines and the cacophonic tumult of radio and television stations worldwide, with their enthusiastic or critical comments, have quieted down, the moment now seems more favorable to step back and take stock of this unprecedented event, to measure what remains of it in the memory of the heart. I would say more precisely: in the heart of men of goodwill, those who are truly longing for peace - those whom the Gospel of Bethlehem calls "objects of divine benevolence."

An Examination of Conscience

Most importantly, we must recall the significance that John Paul II himself intended to give to this trip. In spite of and beyond the particularly serious political conjuncture, for him, just as much a man of faith and pastor of the Catholic Church, it was more than anything else a pilgrimage to the source of faith. For three years, he had been announcing this millennium and preparing for it, by writing speeches with a sense of urgency, as inspired by the biblical tradition of the Jubilee. The year 2000 is a unique occasion to reflect on yesterday, to draw a "balance sheet," as it were, of the time passed in thanksgiving and repentance before God who conducts events as the Master of history.
The beginning of this third millennium was for the pope a privileged opportunity to invite the whole Christian world and, beyond it, the whole of humanity, to an examination of conscience on the failures and mistakes of the past, and from this point to look to the future for an immense process of renewal and conversion. To the pope's mind, the most decisive and urgent conversion, that of which the world is most in need, is unity and peace. We can say that this is his concern to the point of obsession. It is a matter of unity between Christians, between churches, between religious traditions according to their respective faiths - basically, between people and nations. This unity cannot find its source except in mutual respect and love. The pope wanted this millennium pilgrimage to bear witness to this, and that the land in which God intervened in the history of man should be the privileged place for it.
The Parisian Catholic newspaper, The Cross, gave this title for its summary of the pope's visit: "Following the Steps of the Prophet of Peace." John Paul II came not as a diplomat with political propositions in order to promote negotiations, but with a deep desire to create a climate that would make this possible. Indeed, he found himself often caught in the midst of Israeli and Palestinian crossfire, each vying for Jerusalem as their eternal capital city. To succeed in going through this path fraught with pitfalls, without being accused of partiality by either party, was indeed a great feat. Faced by the conflicts of the two peoples living in this land, the pope acted as a witness, but he did not hide his anguish.

Goodwill and Solidarity

We must acknowledge the deep meaning of his attitude concerning the equally tragic destiny of both sides. On the one hand, the simple fact of his visit to Israel - this time an official one, compared to the 1964 visit of Paul VI - the pope sealed the Catholic Church's acknowledgment of a Jewish state. Moreover, the most striking image that the whole world will retain from this trip in the Holy Land is that of the pope's visit to Yad Vashem, in the Tent of Remembrance, dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. In his speech, which had a profound impact on the Israelis, and to which Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave a very noble response, John Paul II called for a "new relationship between Christians and Jews." Another significant moment in this reconciliation with the Jewish world is the visit to the Western Wall. Praying alone before this monument, the most sacred to Judaism, the pope inserted between the stones of the Wall, in accordance with Jewish custom, the text of the Jubilee-Repentance of the Catholic Church regarding the Jews, proclaimed in Rome on March 12.
On the other hand, by the gesture of kissing the soil of Palestine on Wednesday morning in Bethlehem, the pope implicitly expressed his encouragement for a future Palestinian state. Above all, by going that same afternoon to the Deheisheh refugee camp, he reminded Israel and the world that the "torment of the Palestinian people has lasted too long."
Also, prior to his moment of silence at the Western Wall, the pope offered a prayer of peace to the Muslims. A few meters above, on the walkway to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, he met with Sheikh Akrima Sabri. The pope expressed the wish that "the All-Powerful bring peace to the entire beloved region, so that all of the peoples that live here may enjoy their rights, live in harmony and cooperation and be witnesses of the one and only God in an act of goodwill and human solidarity." He reiterated the same message before the Jews at the Western Wall, reading Psalm 122:6-8: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they prosper who love you! Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers! For my brethren and companions' sake I will say, 'Peace be with you!'"

Some Unfulfilled Expectations

Yet, however benevolent the attitude of the pope was in the places that he visited, and however supreme the quality of his message, we must recognize, alas, that he was not always understood and his expectations not always fulfilled. As such, the ecumenical encounter at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, with Patriarch Diodoros and the representatives of the Christian churches, was marked by a great moment of embarrassment. After the exchange of speeches, the delegate to the Holy See in Jerusalem proposed in all naiveté and generosity a gesture not foreseen in the program: that all present recite the Lord's Prayer, "everyone in his own language." All the Catholics accompanying the pope recited the prayer in unison, in Latin. The Orthodox, almost all, kept silent. One does not pray the Pater Noster outside the liturgy!
Another unforeseen embarrassing moment took place at the Notre Dame Center. John Paul II had expressed the desire to meet with leading representatives from both the Jewish and Muslim communities. Such an audacious wager symbolized the pope's hope in a possible cooperation on peace in the Holy Land between the three monotheistic faiths. The wager was lost. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who, since the 1967 occupation and de facto annexation of Jerusalem, has rejected any contact with Jewish religious authorities, declined the invitation. Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, head of the Islamic Courts of the Palestinian Authority, taking the place of the Mufti, entered into a purely political argument affirming Jerusalem as the "eternal capital city of Palestine."
Serene and sure of his message, the pope delivered his speech without modifying the original text. Leaning on his stick, John Paul II looked invincible, although confronted by this political pollution of religious dialogue. On this occasion, he patiently put into practice the counsel that Jesus gave his disciples: "Be prudent as snakes and innocent as doves"(Matt. 10:16). This is probably the reason why these speeches by the pope so directly and so deeply touch the simple, and innocent listeners.
Nevertheless, we can deplore the blunders, or, more accurately, the lapses in good taste incurred during his visit, whether by ill-meaning or incompetent individuals.
One such slip in good taste was by the Israeli information service. The broadcaster appointed to commentate on the radio on the pope's visit was an obdurate testimony of the lack of understanding of Christian identity. I would call him an "ambassador of bitterness and resentment": Since he is a Christian, the pope cannot be but an anti-Semite (writer's emphasis);
The lapse in good taste of Rabbi Lau, who had the chutzpa to ask the pope to account for the silence of Pope Pius XII. This was certainly not the right moment for such an inquiry;
The lapse in good taste of Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, who seemed to fear the pope's visit would mean a re-conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians;
The lapse in good taste of the muezzin of Bethlehem that interrupted the pope's sermon during Holy Mass in front of the Church of the Nativity;
The lapse in good taste of all those who wanted to confuse the claims of nationalism, whatever those may be, with the religious message of John Paul II;
If the humble and the simple welcomed his words, it is because they had an open soul and felt themselves spontaneously in harmony with his message. To all those who have not heard, or those who did not want to hear, we are tempted to repeat the words of Jesus to those whose hearts were closed to his words: "He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day" (John 12:48). <