00 6/15/2009 4:46 AM

Meeting the Pope
in the Holy Land

May 15, 2009

I came across this by chance today, one month late, but it's still a good story - and an interesting point of view. The writer, Brad Hirschfield, is an Orthodox rabbi who writes a blog for both the On Faith section of the Washington post, as well as for Beliefnet. He is also the president of National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

NAZARETH -- My cell phone rang at about ten o'clock last night, it was my brother.

"So, did you meet him? Did you shake his hand?"

And I responded, "Yes, I have met the man in the red Prada loafers."

We talked a bit about the meeting in Nazareth to which I had been invited, but as I also explained to my brother, the best part of the meeting was neither hearing the Pope's remarks (pleasant enough remarks about peace and interfaith cooperation) nor even shaking his hand.

The best part of the meeting was the chance to look into the eyes of the 82-year-old Pontiff.

I appreciate the shaky track record of looking into a world leader's eyes and getting a sense of who he is, especially after former President Bush's experience with then Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

But I also know that after days of swirling controversy in which the Pope's every utterance was placed under a magnifying glass, usually to disparaging effect, the look in Pope Benedict's eyes as he walked from the meeting room, provided a context in which to understand his entire visit. It was a look of true gentleness.

It was not the fiery charisma of his predecessor, nor was it even the burning intensity of the custodian of Catholic orthodoxy. And that gentleness, that sense of human caring, became the prism through which to view both this man in general and his journey to the Holy Land in particular.

This was not a trip about who is right and who is wrong, about what was done to whom by which people, when. So, all of that analysis becomes somewhat strange.

In fact, this was a trip by a man who simply wants us all to treat each other a little better; especially in a land we call Holy. I know it sounds a little "Rodney King", and we all like to mock that plea.

But I wonder if we mock its simplicity because of the implicit hard work required to make it a reality. That is the hard work to which each of us in the room was gently called by the Pope.

Interestingly, the encounter with the Pope in Nazareth suggested a way in which the work could be done. The power of the meeting was that by virtue of his office, the Pope has the ability to draw people together to pursue that goal. That is the lasting message of the meeting in Nazareth.

Most of the people gathered in that room do not make it a regular practice to spend time together. Despite sharing a country, the Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze who came together, did not really share a common language, or if they did, it was Arabic. But that is a topic for another time.

The Pope brought this group together and that convening power should not be squandered. It must be used to continually bring leaders together, especially those who are not naturally inclined to do so.

Such meetings should carry a papal imprimatur: You cannot afford not to show up. I hope that representatives of the Church will continue that work, helping to turn a list of invitees into a network of religious leaders who show up not only to be seen by the Pope, or to represent teir respective communities, but to continue a conversation, or at least begin to find a common language.

I believe that were it to happen, the next time I am privileged to see Pope Benedict, I will see not only gentleness, but joy.

Too bad Rabbi Hirschfield missed the joy that is as characteristic of the Holy Father as gentleness, the quality best conveyed by the Italian word for it, dolcezza, which connotes the sweetness that marks true gentleness.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 6/15/2009 4:47 AM]