Pope's pilgrimage ripples with meaning

The following is an archive article dated March 31, 2000: Christians gathered on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee to commune with God's representative on earth while Jews, contemplating peace and war, gazed across the northeast shore at the dark uplands of the Golan. That was 20 centuries ago. Last week, the Jews were still pondering Damascus's intentions, as they had so often in antiquity, but the Christian gathering near the Mount of Beatitudes gripped their attention with far more interest and empathy than it had back then. The remarkable pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II resonated through the land with meanings not yet fully grasped. Hard-edged assumptions by Catholics and Jews about one another, shaped over two millennia, had been touched, softened, perhaps transformed during the six-day visit. The age-old relationship between "Christ killers" and "pogromists" had, it seemed, yielded magically to something benign. "Christians had seen themselves as the inheritors of the Judaic tradition, as the "New Israel," " said philosopher David Hartman in Jerusalem. "As St. Augustine wrote, the Jews had to suffer because they rejected Christ, but they also had to be kept alive as witness to the truth of Christianity. Christian pilgrims would visit the destroyed temple and see in its ruin confirmation that God had changed direction. "By definition, Christianity was in opposition to Judaism, whose place it believed it had taken. Israel was to be an exilic people. "Now this pope comes to Jerusalem, not just to visit holy sites but to acknowledge the Jewish people in its homeland. We are no longer a cursed people. We are no more a wandering people. This is a major revolution in Christian thought." The change from the teaching of contempt towards the Jews, a theological rethink developing over the past half- century, was imprinted on mass consciousness virtually overnight by the pope's visit - not this time in the form of church promulgations read only by the learned but as an attitude physically embodied for all to see by the pope himself. It appeared to be matched by an attitudinal change among Israeli Jews watching the pope's progress. For many, particularly those raised abroad, churches had been dark, forbidding - even forbidden - places nurturing animosity towards the Jewish people and indulging in alien customs. Because of the television coverage of the papal visit, most Israelis got to witness the celebration of a mass for the first time. They had, in fact, the opportunity to witness several. They found them, particularly the one at Korazim on the shores of the Kinneret, to be joyful, aesthetic events with elements echoing Jewish practices. What's more, the pope preached not fire and brimstone but a social gospel, based on Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, that Histadrut leader Amir Peretz could incorporate without losing a beat the next time he talks into a television camera about strikers' grievances against a background of burning tires. In a region where religion has been a major force for hate and divisiveness, the pope's message was about love and compassion, and there was enough of it left over to embrace the Jews and Moslems as well. Every aspect of the papal journey was carefully calculated by the Holy See to avoid political pitfalls and shore up the church's position in the Holy Land. Superb organization left virtually nothing to chance or spontaneity. BUT THE visage of the aged pope infused the visit with an overarching piety that defied skepticism. Willing his reluctant body forward in what was clearly one of the sublimest chapters of his life, John Paul was the embodiment of spirituality. The political ferment that attended his passage only made that spirituality more striking. Everyone wanted a piece of him - Christians of every denomination, the Jews, the Moslems, politicians. The local church, with its dwindling ranks, wanted his aura, and his visit clearly enhanced its prestige in the eyes of its neighbors. The Jews wanted to see the pope in the confessional - confessing the church's sins. The Moslems didn't need confession but sought his blessing - of their political objectives. Jewish and Arab politicians, breathless with anticipation, examined the holy father's every word like Talmudists, searching for support of their positions. The demands upon him were unrelenting. At an interfaith meeting designed to rise above the conflicts of the moment and achieve a reconciliation of spirit, however fleeting, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau chose to score political points by declaring in the presence of the pope and Moslem representatives that the papal visit to Jerusalem meant the Holy See recognized the city as the unified capital of Israel - a position never taken by the Vatican and violently objected to by the Moslems who promptly issued catcalls. At every opportunity, Lau also helpfully offered suggestions to the pope through the media regarding what John Paul should say about the Holocaust during his Yad Vashem visit. Moslem leaders, totally ignoring the spirit of the occasion, used the visit to fan political and religious flames and to deny the extent of the Holocaust. It was a performance that should give the Church pause about ever entrusting care of its holy places to the "Mosque Militant." Of all the non-Christian religious leaders who met the pope, it was Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron whose reaction matched the moment most appropriately. He warmly praised the pope's visit as a historic turning point and left it at that, without seeking political advantage and without presuming to tell the pope what to say. Through it all, the pontiff maintained an equanimity and a grace that filtered through the television screen. "He's a good man," said Avi, a waiter in a cafe in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel quarter. Was Avi troubled by the fact that the pope represented a church that had persecuted Jews for centuries? "I'm not thinking about history," he said. "I'm thinking about now. Everyone should pray as he pleases." Israel Television showed a haredi yeshiva student watching the pope at the Western Wall. Curiosity had brought him, he said. What did he think of it? "Well," he replied after a pause, "It's another thing I've seen in life that's interesting." It was a comment that was thoughtful, not dismissive, one that reflected a subtle shift from disdain or indifference to something approaching openness and respect. For one of the six representatives of Holocaust victims the pope greeted at Yad Vashem, the perspective was historical: "We've waited for this 2,000 years." THE POPE had the advantage of representing a minority in the Holy Land small enough to be free of the temptations of power, thus permitting him to keep to the moral high ground. At the same time, he had the advantage of representing close to a billion followers worldwide, thus earning rapt attention for his every step. But it was neither the pope's restraint nor his "divisions" that won the day for John Paul. It was won by the evident piety of a 79-year-old believer resolutely soldiering on through a grueling schedule in his march towards heaven's gates, his saintly demeanor bereft of guile. When he was gone, there was a widespread sense that a holy man had passed through the land and that something had changed.