The visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the Middle East resulted in a flurry of observations, commentaries, applause and criticism.
Writers focusing on Middle East politics assessed the impact of the tour and specific speeches on any potential, or tangential, influence on the various contending proposals for peace and future relationships between the peoples of the Middle East.
Commentators viewing the visit through the lens of the complex relations between Islam and Catholicism noted his visits to mosques in Amman and Jerusalem. They dissected each word to discern whether perceived Church positions had stayed consistent or proven flexible, whether he would be respected or challenged, or where theology intersected with diplomacy.
Experts in the intricacies of Jewish-Catholic relations generally took a long view, placing it in the historical context of previous Papal visits. They discussed presentations in the light of the Pope’s existing body of analysis and expression, seeking to locate the visit within a broad spectrum of Jewish-Catholic relations.
The two most widely reported events of the trip were the interfaith meeting at Notre Dame in Jerusalem and the comments relating to the Shoah, the Nazis’ genocide.
The meeting in Notre Dame, convened to promote interfaith dialogue and respect, saw an uninvited intervention by Sheikh Taysir Rajab Tamimi, in which he called for Muslims and Christians to unite against allegedly murderous Israel.
The context of the comments was a response to the Pope’s submission,“we know that our differences need never be misrepresented as an inevitable source of friction… Rather, they provide a wonderful opportunity for people of different religions to live together in profound respect, esteem and appreciation, encouraging one another in the ways of God.” Tamimi’s interjection clearly embarrassed and upset the organisers and guest of honour.
The Sheikh exposed a stream of “dialogue”, which has a fair degree of support in Australia, based on Muslims and Christians working against a “common enemy”, which is shallow, cynical and immoral.
The Pope’s condemnations of antisemitism in general and Holocaust denial in particular were forthright and consistent. Discussion on the selection of words included in the speech at Yad Vashem (“killed” rather than “murdered” for the victims of Nazism) and words omitted (such as the identity of the murderers), perhaps diverted attention from the significance of the visit itself and the effort of the Vatican to reinforce and reaffirm the steps towards redefining the Catholic-Jewish relationships taken by Pope John Paul II.
Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau, was in Australia after the Papal visit to Israel, and I was able to point from our meeting place to Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Pope John Paul II made the historic declaration that the Church views antisemitism as a sin.
Those who met Rabbi Lau also heard his first-hand nuanced, sophisticated assessment of the current relationship between the Vatican and the Jewish world.
The “Annual Conversation” between Australian Catholic Bishops and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry also took place during the week of the Pope’s pilgrimage to Israel.
The Conversation’s existence is in itself testimony to the genuine strong relationship between the leadership of Australia’s Jews and Catholics. The frank, open, honest discussions which take place during the gatherings are the result of respect and trust.
Discussion of the Pope’s words and actions with bishops, rabbis, a sister and Jewish experts is quite different from internal community deliberations, and a mile from superficial media reports.
Other matters, such as the ending of the excommunication of a group led by a Holocaust-denying bishop and the relevance of change to Good Friday liturgy were also canvassed, in a spirit of genuine enquiry and sensitivity to the unique features and concerns of Judaism and Catholicism.
There is a great deal of work to be done to build an ideal Catholic-Jewish relationship, but the longer I am involved in dialogue with the Australian bishops and in international forums, the more confident I become that we have the foundations for a positive, constructive future.