00 5/8/2009 8:54 AM

John Allen reverts this week to his grab-bag multi-focus format for his weekly column,
and I am picking out the portions pertinent to Benedict XVI to post here


April 24, 2009

Benedict XVI's visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories May 8-15 is likely to offer an object lesson in the ancient wisdom that "you can't please everyone." Several behind-the-scenes tensions currently percolating illustrate the point.

A Vatican official told me this week that e-mails have arrived in Rome complaining that the Pope has not put the Gaza Strip on his itinerary, as a gesture of solidarity with people suffering from the recent conflict.

Vatican diplomats point out that popes generally steer clear of such hot spots, on the grounds of not making an already volatile situation worse. Moreover, even if the Pope were inclined to act as a human shield, the question would be why he picks one conflict over another. (If he went to Gaza, critics might wonder why he didn't stop in Darfur during his recent trip to Africa.)

Despite that, it's possible that some may read the fact the Pope is not going to Gaza as a deliberate omission, as a missed opportunity, or worse.

{This 'Gaza lobby' is getting out of hand. As I have commented before on this subject, we can all sympathize with the life experience of the Palestinian Christians - as with all persecuted Christians - but that does not entitle them to preferential treatment which would not only jeopardize the physical security of the Pope but also the delicate diplomatic balance he has to maintain with all the civilian authorities of three nations involved in his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which means so much to him for its symbolic weight. And I think those in the media who feed this selfish concern by thet Gaza lobby are doing them and the Pope a disservice.]

Second, there's a difference among Palestinian Christians, and their supporters and émigré communities abroad, concerning how much the Pope should say about the "exodus" of Christians out of the Holy Land.

Some want the Pope to hit the theme hard, both as a reflection of the reality (Jordanian Catholic Rateb Rabie, who runs the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation in the Washington, D.C., area, told me there are just 50,000 Christians left in the Palestinian Territories, compared to 700,000 living abroad) and as a way of pressuring all parties to make peace.

Others, however, worry that too much hand-wringing about an "exodus" may demoralize the Christians who are still in the Holy Land, and render the Christian presence in the region's societies even more invisible.

[Which brings me to a point I made previously. All of us, as individuals and communities, have been given our Cross to bear along with Christ.

The Gaza lobby should put their plight into perspective - think about the Christians in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, or the Catholics of China and India, and all the Christians who have suffered for the faith (or simply because of war around them that they cannot escape)!

It happens this is the Cross that God has given them at this time, and the rest of the Christian world prays for them and all those who are persecuted in the name of religion and/or who suffer because of wr, disease and poverty.]

As an example of the latter view, I spoke by phone on April 18 with Fr. Rif'at Bader, a Jordanian priest of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who's handling communications for the papal visit.

"We don't like to talk about the numbers, but about presence," Bader told me. "Christians are still present, they're well-educated, and they have an important role in the economy, in political life, in the academy . . . Too much focus on the numbers is dangerous, because it's depressing."

In still other quarters, there's ambivalence about the very idea of the trip, based on concern about its impact on efforts to negotiate a deal with Israel on the legal and tax status of church properties -- something that was supposed to be settled in 1994, after Israel and the Holy See launched diplomatic relations, but which is still unresolved 15 years later.

[Yes, but the Pope has made it clear he wants to undertake this trip as a pilgrimage, a spiritual experience that should not be cluttered by pending political and cultural issues, as Vatican statements since the official announcement have also made it clear!]

Here's a concrete example: In Caesarea, a Catholic shrine was destroyed in the 1950s, and today local Catholics want the site returned so they can rebuild a place of worship.

There are also concerns about visas for Christian clergy, especially since the new Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu has entrusted the Interior Ministry to the religious Shas Party. (The last time a Shas member controlled the ministry, there was a complete embargo on entry and residence permits for church personnel.)

Prior to this spring, the Vatican line appeared to be that there would be no papal visit to Israel until a deal on such matters was reached. The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, said in December 2007 that "along with general conditions of peace, there should be positive signs on relations with the Holy See." [But itt's a line that changed soon afterwards, especially with all the polemics raised by some Jewish quarters against recent papal actions.]

Some fear that having secured a papal visit, the Israelis may feel less pressure to strike a bargain. On the other hand, a senior Vatican official told me Wednesday that if the trip were conditional on resolving all outstanding disputes, it might never happen -- and for a Pope who's now 82, as this official put it, you can't tell him, "Give it three years and we'll see." [There you have it!]

For perspective on this point, I went on Tuesday to the Villa Massimo, the Rome headquarters of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, to speak with Fr. David Jaeger, the custodian's delegate. Born to Jewish parents in Tel Aviv, Jaeger converted to Christianity and became a Franciscan priest. He's long been a lead negotiator for the Vatican in its talks with the Israeli government.

"I trust that the Holy Father's visit will serve to confirm the centrality of the treaty-based relationship in Israel," Jaeger said, adding that this is a relationship involving "the Holy See, the worldwide Catholic Church and the Jewish state."

In the context described above, the significance of the phrase "treaty-based" should be obvious.

Finally, there's anxiety among some local Catholics that the Pope's itinerary is a bit too "politically correct," top-heavy with diplomatic, inter-faith and ecumenical events, potentially at the expense of the local church.

For example, Benedict is not scheduled to visit any Christian sites in Galilee, and he is also not planning to say Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, restricting himself to a visit and speech. (John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Holy Sepulchre during his March 2000 visit.)

Given the fierce jostling among different Christian denominations over claims to the Holy Sepulchre, some may be tempted to read Benedict's decision as a concession.

[No! It seems obvious that the choice of the site for the Jerusalem Mass was based on having a palce large enough to hold as many attendees as possible. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is within the old city of Jerusalem, hemmed in by buildings and alleys, add having a fairly small courtyard - all told, the place would not accommodate more than 5,000 at the most generous. It is being held in the open-air at the Josaphat Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives.

And besides, what is wrong in the Vatican not wishing to exacerbate intra-Christian rivalries in that Church during a trip that is first and foremost a pilgrimage?

As for the visit to Galilee, this is not a 'tour of the Holy Places' for Benedict XVI who visited the Holy Land at least twice before he became Pope. Galilee is well represented on this visit by Nazareth.]

Like John Paul before him, Benedict will also visit a site associated with John's baptism of Jesus which lies on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, and which is promoted as a tourist destination by the Jordanian government.

Yet there's also a rival site on the Israeli side where Christian churches have been attracting pilgrims for centuries, but where access is now complicated by Israeli military zones. A papal visit to these traditional sites, some local Catholics believe, could be of enormous help. In part, the concerns are economic: whichever site the Pope visits may get a leg up in the scramble to attract tourists.

[Well, if normal access to the 'rival Israeli site' is currently restricted by military considerations, then even if the Pope visited it, that would not help the local tourist trade at all! Really, these issues are so picayune and detract from the nature of the visit as a pilgrimage.]

* * *

Another possible irritant on the trip could be fallout from the April 20-24 Durban Review Conference, the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism. Based on concerns that the conference was biased against Israel, a number of countries, including the United States, either boycotted or sent only low-level delegations. Those worries seemed confirmed when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to Israel as "totally racist" and accused the Israelis of carrying out "ethnic cleansing in Gaza."

The Holy See took part in the conference, but Vatican officials have been engaged in a full-court PR press this week to ensure that Israel doesn't take it the wrong way.

On Monday, the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement obviously intended to distance the Vatican from Ahmadinejad and his anti-Israeli line.

"In itself, the conference is an important occasion for carrying forward the struggle against racism and intolerance. The Holy See took part for this reason, and intends to support the efforts of international institutions to take steps forward in this direction," Lombardi said.

"Naturally, statements such as that of the Iranian president do not move in the right direction, because, even if he did not deny the Holocaust or the right of Israel to exist, he used expressions which are extremist and unacceptable. For this reason, it's important to continue to clearly affirm respect for the dignity of the human person against every form of racism and intolerance."

On Wednesday, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, headlined a story on Durban, "The Holy See deplores the use of the forum for taking extremist positions offensive to any state."

In an interview on Thursday with Corriere della Sera, the Holy See's Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, said that had Ahmadinejad repeated past comments questioning the Holocaust during his speech in Geneva, "We too would have made a different decision."

"We're very careful to assess the situation, especially because the pope is going to Israel as a sign of great affection toward the country," Tomasi said, adding that he had taken part in a Holocaust commemoration ceremony this week in Geneva.

Nonetheless, for Israelis suspicious of a pro-Palestinian bias in the Vatican, a photograph out of Benedict XVI's General Audience on Wednesday probably won't help. [BAH! HUMBUG!]

At the end of the audience, the pope stopped to chat briefly with a group of young Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, representing a parish the pope plans to visit. One young woman put a keffiyeh, the classic Palestinian headdress, around the pope's shoulders.

Fairly quickly, the pope's private secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein, removed it [as he does with any garment, headwear or neckwear that is presented to the Pope, not because it happened to be a kaffiyeh! Please, a bit of fairness and common sense is needed all around!] - but the keffiyeh was on Benedict long enough for a photographer to get the shot. One imagines it will make the rounds.

Allen does have a non-contentious item, which is also authentic news, to report on, having to do with the Holy Fahter's fourth anniversary as Pope::

Most commentary on the fourth anniversary of Benedict's papacy has been intra-Catholic.

This week, however, theologians from the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Reformed traditions (with a Catholic thrown in for good measure) came to Rome to present a new book titled The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its Premises and Promises (Eerdmans).

Editor William Rusch, an American Lutheran, presented the Pope with a copy of the book, bearing the signatures of each of its contributors.

The Centro Pro Unione, a prestigious ecumenical center in Rome run by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, hosted a three-day conference this week to discuss the book. I was asked to be part of a concluding panel Tuesday morning, moderated by Msgr. John Radano of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

For a Pope who hasn't always played to the best reviews ecumenically, the overall tone of the book is remarkably appreciative.

German Lutheran Harding Mayer, for example, writes that "Of all the conservatives in the church, he is the one with the greatest capacity for dialogue."

American Pentecostal Cheryl Bridges Johns says, "I have come to believe that while Benedict XVI seeks to conserve doctrine and to make clear the ecumenical boundaries, he is not of the temperament to stir up religious wars or to denigrate other Christians." [My dear Ms. Johns, if he did that, it would be most un-Christian, wouldn't it?]

Such was the spirit of kinship that Rusch even came to Benedict's defense during a Q&A session. On the subject of relations between Benedict and his former colleague, liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng, Rusch said that after reading Küng's memoirs, which contained some fairly biting remarks about the Pope, "I'm not sure I would have invited him to pranzo if he had said those things about me."

Naturally, this is not to suggest that all is sweetness and light. Mayer, for example, suggested that Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, had backtracked on his appreciation for diversity in the churches as a result of a "personal drama" he suffered amid student uprisings in the 1960s.

[And did Mayer justify this charge at all? If he is referring to Dominus Iesus and its reaffirmation of the Roman Catholic Church as the one true Church of Christ, then that is something Joseph Ratzinger, Catholic and priest, has stood for all his life.

But Mayer is equally wrong if he means by 'appreciation for diversity' support for religious syncretism in any way, shape or form! In any case, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has never shown other than respect for other Christian confessions and other religions.]

Nonetheless, the basic thrust of the authors was summed up by Rusch, who said they want the volume to represent an "encouragement" to the Pope.

Just to offer a bit of the book's flavor, Jones observes in her essay that the demographic balance in Christianity is increasingly shifting to the global South, where the two main Christian groups are Catholics and Pentecostals. She suggests that "a reformed Catholicism and a mature Pentecostalism" may hold the key to the Christian future, and urges more conversation between the two.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/8/2009 9:05 AM]