By Cardinal Justin Rigali
From May 8 to May 15, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His visit was rich in moments of prayer, teaching and exhortation. This week, it seems appropriate that we reflect on some highlights of his Pastoral Journey.
A pilgrim of peace
Many of the places our Holy Father visited during this latest Journey are areas which have been filled with tension; in some cases for many centuries, in others for at least a number of years. The usual speculation took place beforehand concerning the manner in which Pope Benedict would be received, along with concerns for his safety. The Pope himself gives forth a wonderful spirit of serenity. It is the serenity of the peace of Christ, which dwells within him. He is able to bring that serenity to the places he visits and it seems to inspire much of the atmosphere which is created wherever he goes. This happened once again during his Journey to the Holy Land.
It is appropriate to point out that the peace that Pope Benedict sought to bring with him was the idea of peace expressed in the Hebrew word: Shalom. The meaning of this word does not indicate a mere absence of conflict, but a peace which suffuses inspaniduals and which is then able to suffuse entire situations with its spirit. This is the peace Pope Benedict brought with him and the peace he wished to contribute to those who saw and heard him.
The serene welcome given to the Pope by the King of Jordan, who is Muslim and by many of the Muslims living in that country, along with the Pope’s desire to visit with the poor and needy at the very beginning of his trip, seemed to set the tone for the rest of the Journey. By being a pilgrim for peace, the Pope wanted prayer and an appeal for justice, especially for those who are most abandoned, mistreated or forgotten to be the theme of his Journey.
“Peter,” in the person of Pope Benedict, confirms our faith
Pope Benedict also went to the Holy Land as the Successor of Saint Peter. Part of his pastoral responsibility is to fulfill the role, which Jesus gave to Peter, to confirm us in the faith. In the Gospel of Saint Luke we read Jesus’ words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). Peter’s role is constantly being fulfilled in his successor and this is why we should read and study the words he gives us, so that our own faith may be confirmed in the age in which we have been called to live, according to God’s plan.
At the Memorial to Moses on Mount Nebo, Pope Benedict made all of us a part of his own pilgrimage when he spoke of the Christian life and its pilgrimage character. He said: “Moses gazed upon the Promised Land from afar, at the end of his earthly pilgrimage. His example reminds us that we too are part of the ageless pilgrimage of God’s people through history. In the footsteps of the prophets, the apostles and the saints, we are called to walk with the Lord, to carry on his mission, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s universal love and mercy. We are called to welcome the coming of Christ’s Kingdom by our charity, our service to the poor, and our efforts to be a leaven of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace in the world around us” (Speech to the Franciscans at the Basilica of the Memorial to Moses, 9 May 2009).
Remembering the Shoah
“The biblical word Shoah (which has been used to mean ‘destruction’ since the Middle Ages) became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of European Jewry as early as the early 1940s… we consider it important to use the Hebrew word Shoah with regard to the murder of and persecution of European Jewry in other languages as well” (Shoah Resource Center, www.yadvashem.org). This definition of the word Shoah, used by many of the Jewish people and made use of by Pope Benedict as well, helps us to highlight another reason for his visit to the Holy Land: to pay tribute to and acknowledge our Jewish brothers and sisters killed during the horrible time of Nazi persecution.
We may say that Pope Benedict placed what the reaction of Christians should be to this tragedy in three settings: the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and his own testimony, when visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. We know that the very basic teaching of Jesus is one of love for our neighbor. Jesus goes so far as to tell His followers that whatever we do to the least among us, we do to Him.
This is why, along with growth of the early Church, institutions and vehicles for Christian charity were established. If anyone calling himself a Christian attempts to defile the teaching of the Gospel by turning it from a Gospel of love to a Gospel of hate, it is just that, a defilement of the truth.
While inspaniduals down through the ages have attempted to do that, it is never an authentic understanding of the teaching of Jesus and His Church. This is why Pope Benedict was able to say during his speech at Yad Vashem: “The Catholic Church, committed to the teachings of Jesus and intent on imitating his love for all people, feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here. Similarly, she draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion – their sufferings are hers, and hers is their hope for justice” (11 May 2009).
The Second Vatican Council, in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, acknowledges the Jewish people as our ancestors in the faith. They are the race in which Jesus, in His human nature, was born. The Virgin Mary was a young Jewish woman and the Apostles were Jewish men. In this context, the Council teaches: “The Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then, its common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, it deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews” (Nostra Aetate, 4).
During his first moments on Israeli soil, Pope Benedict condemned any persecution of the Jewish people because of their race and paid tribute to the victims of the Shoah. He said: “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. Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible consequences of ideologies that deny 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 six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude” (Speech during Welcoming Ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, 11 May 2009).
Later that same day, during a ceremony with survivors of the Holocaust, the Pope spoke of the necessity of never denying or forgetting the tragic events and the victims commemorated at the Holocaust Memorial. He said: “May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this.”
A pilgrimage rich in teaching and inspiration
This pilgrimage of our Holy Father to the Holy Land was a long one and filled with many teachings and rich material for meditation and inspiration. There are many other topics which the Holy Father covered during this Journey, which we cannot cover here. To name some of them, we might mention: his dialogue with the Orthodox Christians; his support of a Palestinian homeland; his sadness over the wall that cuts many off from their loves ones and from their freedom to travel; his desire for free access to all the Holy Places which pilgrims desire to visit; his dialogue with the Muslim community and his words at all the visits he made to most sacred places.
For us, as believers in Jesus Christ and in His Death and Resurrection, we are grateful that “Peter,” in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, has confirmed the faith of the Church, guaranteed by Jesus two thousand years ago. We can sum this up in the words our Holy Father spoke at the site of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus rose from the dead: “Here Christ died and rose, never to die again. Here the history of humanity was decisively changed. The long reign of sin and death was shattered by the triumph of obedience and life; the wood of the Cross lay bare the truth about good and evil; God’s judgement was passed on this world and the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon humanity. Here Christ, the new Adam, taught us that evil never has the last word, that love is stronger than death, that our future, and the future of all humanity, lies in the hands of a faithful and provident God” (Address during visit to the Holy Sepulchre, 15 May 2009).
21 May 2009