Announcing a May pilgrimage devoted to "unity" and "peace," Benedict XVI has appealed for divine assistance. He'll need it.
'God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
- From the prayer placed into a crack in the Western Wall by pope John Paul II, on March 26, 2000.
For Israelis and Jews worldwide, I'd venture, there is really only one pope.
It's not the one, Benedict XVI, who this week formally confirmed that in May, he would "make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to ask the Lord - visiting the places sanctified by His passage on the earth - for His precious blessing of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all of mankind."
It's not the one, Paul VI, who deigned to enter our country for less than a day in January 1964 and managed never to mention "Israel" by name, even refusing to address our head of state, Zalman Shazar, who welcomed him, as "Mr. President."
And it's certainly not the one, Pius XII, whose World War II record of failure to save Jews from the Nazis is so hotly disputed by the Vatican.
It is, rather, John Paul II, the last pontiff to visit our country, and the first to do so officially, having himself presided over the institution of full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, and having made his millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land the culmination of his papacy and everything it stood for.
This was the pope who decisively reversed Vatican opposition to the very notion of a renewed Jewish state, and endorsed the Jews' right to return to their land. This was the pope who condemned anti-Semitism as "a sin against God and against man." This was the pope who characterized the Jews as "dear and beloved elder brothers," the pope under whose watch Catholic missionizing to the Jews came to a halt, the pope who, inarguably, did more than anybody else in two millennia to encourage reconciliation between his faith and ours.
This was the first pope to visit a synagogue - in Rome, in 1986 - but, critically, that was by no means the first time he, Karol Wojtyla, had entered a Jewish house of prayer. That occasion was all the way back in the 1930s, when he and his Polish army officer father chose, quite deliberately in an era of escalating anti-Semitism, to attend a concert of cantorial music in the main synagogue of his native Wadowice.
As pope in his declining years - he turned 80 two months after his Israel visit - Wojtyla was merely maintaining the moral clarity of a lifetime: As a young man he had played as goalkeeper on a Jewish team in that anti-Semitic 1930s Poland, defied the Nazis by studying at an illegal seminary during the war, and made his mark as a priest afterward by ensuring that a Jewish child he knew to have been sheltered in a Christian home be returned to the safekeeping of what remained of the Jewish community.
Nine years ago, on March 26, 2000, this was the pope who made his slow, painstaking way to the Western Wall, stood alone in his white robes, dwarfed but not diminished by the vast stones, bowed his head and paused in silence - an extraordinary, era-defining image of deference and respect. Then he slowly inserted his prayer for forgiveness between the stones, prepared to leave, but turned again for one more brief silent moment at the holiest place in Judaism.
SO DAZZLING is the memory of John Paul II, it sometimes threatens to obscure the fact that he - even he - was the focus of no little intermittent Jewish criticism. He canonized the Jewish-born Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun who died at Auschwitz. And it was he who spurred the ongoing process toward the beatification of Pius XII, endorsing a panel to assess the wartime pontiff's behavior.
Even on his Holy Land visit, there was helpless Israeli bitterness that he was meeting with an incandescently triumphant Yasser Arafat. This was intensified in some Jewish quarters when he gently kissed a bowl of "Palestinian soil" presented to him in Bethlehem - a gesture dismissed by Vatican officials as the respectful response to a sample of the earth from the birthplace of Jesus - and when he had offered no direct reaction to charges of "genocide" leveled at Israel by Palestinian Sheikh Tatzir Tamimi at an interfaith meeting he hosted.
But any such criticisms were appropriately marginal in the context of John Paul II's status as the peerless emblem of Christian-Jewish harmony.
HIS SOON-TO-ARRIVE successor has yet to achieve remotely comparable elevation.
Membership in the Hitler Youth was compulsory for the young Joseph Ratzinger in 1941, and his refusal to attend meetings, as well as his father's antipathy to Nazism, are well documented. Similarly, there was doubtless no avoiding the German army draft that saw him removed from a seminary in 1943 and sent for infantry training.
As pope, furthermore, Benedict XVI has ticked many of John Paul II's boxes, visiting a synagogue in Cologne soon after his election and another in New York last year, going to Auschwitz in 2006, condemning Nazism, and pledging Christianity's "full and indisputable solidarity with Jews."
But his energetic championing of Pius XII, his failure to include Israel as a nation targeted by terrorism on a list of other victim venues, his negligent rehabilitation of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson and his revival of a mass which urges the conversion of Jews, all mean that he will come to Israel as a figure regarded with some wariness, albeit eased by his remarkable acknowledgment on Thursday of error over the Williamson debacle.
A CHURCH official involved in the planning of May's visit suggested to me this week that it had taken a while for the essential characteristics of the last pope to become evident, and that a clear sense of Benedict XVI's ethos was only now starting to emerge, four years into his papacy.
This official, furthermore, considered it an admirable sign of Benedict's high purpose that he was choosing to visit at precisely so unpromising a historical juncture. In 2000, he recalled, "there were peace hopes, and it was the millennium year." Now, by contrast, "there is little optimism about peace, it's an 'ordinary' year, and there's a global financial crisis."
"But we believe in miracles. We believe in goodwill. We believe in the power of prayer," he went on. "And that, as the pope has himself said, is why he is coming. It's a pilgrimage. He's coming to pray - that maybe the Lord will give the gift of unity to the Middle East... He is coming to promote better understanding between all the monotheistic religions... He is coming with every good intention toward Christians and Jews."
He is also visiting, the official said, "as a signal of hope for local Christians" - whose number has been in relentless decline as a consequence of low birthrate and emigration fuelled by the desire for a better quality of life. "We have even lower fertility rates than secular Ashkenazim," said the official sadly, estimating the average number of children per Holy Land Christian household at 2.1, as compared to 2.3 for secular Ashkenazim, 4-5 for Muslim families and 6-7 for ultra-Orthodox families.
Still, he said, the figure of 120,000 Christians in Israel had been stable since the early 1990s. In east Jerusalem and the West Bank, by contrast, the Christian population was now only some 50,000, with a further 1,000 in Gaza - a collapse of a full third in the space of two decades. "There are more Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem in Chile and El Salvador today than in Bethlehem," he said. "It's a tragedy."
LIKE JOHN Paul II, the current pope will, of course, be venturing into a minefield of Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian sensitivities.
Political and religious figures on both sides will be trying to claim his sympathies and endorsement, and he will have to depend on astute guidance from his own officials, at least some of whom, I suspect, will be encouraging him to extend general calls for dialogue and reconciliation to more specific advocacy when it comes to the vexed issue of Israel and Hamas.
Like John Paul II, he will visit Yad Vashem, but like his predecessor won't tour the Holocaust museum where a photograph of Pius XII is displayed with the caption proclaiming that the pope did not save Jews from the Holocaust. He will visit the Palestinian territories, where Arafat welcomed his predecessor with the assertion that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian people. He too will enter a Bethlehem-area refugee camp - Aida this time, rather than his predecessor's Dehaishe. And like John Paul II, he will ascend to the Temple Mount and encounter the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem. Sheikh Ikrema Sabri declared in several interviews at the time of the last papal visit that Israel exaggerates the scale of the Holocaust - the number of dead was "a lot less" than six million - "to get sympathy worldwide."
WHEN HE made his unprecedented six-day pilgrimage nine years ago, John Paul II was 22 years into a papacy that would last only five more, truly beloved by many of the Jewish faithful to whom he had shown such sensitivity, and plainly ailing. He looked exhausted throughout his visit, and sat slumped and all but immobile for part of it.
Benedict XVI is relatively energetic by contrast, even though he is older (82 next month) than John Paul II was when he came here, has a heart condition and has suffered minor strokes. He will likely be subjected to the merciless examination that his predecessor was spared - of every stop included on or left off his itinerary, every uttered and absent phrase, every gesture.
"May God accompany me, support me and bless with his grace all those who I meet on my way," Benedict XVI pleaded at St. Peter's on Sunday when confirming his visit.
One can well understand the desire for such assistance.