for the Pilgrimage
Parkinsons disease and the frailties caused by his other accumulating health
problems have left their mark on the 80-year-old Pope John Paul II. He is stooped, he
limps, his speech is often slurred, and his expression is often frozen. But rather than
limiting his impact, the Popes age and frailty only seemed to enhance the effect of
his visit to the Holy Land in March.
Pitched as a personal pilgrimage by an aging pontiff who wished to retrace the steps of
Jesus, this 92nd papal venture outside of Italy posed real risks, exposing John
Paul to the conflicting demands and expectations of the regions innumerable factions
of contending Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
By and large, the worlds media called it another, and perhaps the
greatest, in a long string of traveling triumphs for the "legend in the white
cassock," to use Chicago Tribune religion writer Steve Kloehns neat
phrase. But the popes agenda was complex, and most reporters focused mostly on John
Pauls interactions with Jews, paying little attention to John Pauls decidedly
mixed success on the trip with two other interlocutors: the Eastern Orthodox and the
A few headlines capture the common judgment of American reporters and editorial
writers: "In Holy Land, Pope Was a Devout Diplomat; Pontiffs Presence Impressed
All Sides" (Washington Post); "Popes Israel Trip Draws
Accolades" (Philadelphia Daily News); "John Pauls Journey a
Spiritual Triumph" (Hartford Courant).
Coverage of John Pauls unprecedented pilgrimages has long since evolved into a
journalistic sub-genre--often, as in this case, conducted in a literally breathless mode.
"In six breathtaking days in the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II not only stayed on
message--a plea for reconciliation, coexistence and peace in a turbulent region. He also
effected a tectonic shift in interfaith relations between Catholics and Jews, won the
hearts and minds of all but a few Israelis and gave a boost to Palestinians and the
demoralized local Christian community," Lee Hockstader reported in a retrospective
piece in the Washington Post on March 28.
Or, as Karin Laub put it in her March 26 AP dispatch: "Pope John Paul II left
behind a Holy Land touched by gestures humble and grand, from his loving pat on the head
of a young Palestinian refugee to his pleas for forgiveness of Christian persecution at
Judaisms holiest shrine."
Indeed, the image of the Pope wedging a written prayer seeking forgiveness for
Christian persecution of the Jews into a crack in the Western Wall was an act of immense
power and humility. It was a kind of summation of the impressive work John Paul has done
since the beginning of his papacy to repair the deep breach between Catholicism and
While there were Jewish voices demanding that the pope apologize in detail for the
institutional failures of the Catholic church and its leaders during the Holocaust--Jewish
extremists painted swastikas on the popes Jerusalem heli-pad--American reporters
gave far more space to Israelis and other Jews who were willing to John Paul a great deal
of credit. Ron Goldwyns report in the Philadelphia Daily News conveyed the
enthusiastic responses of Conservative rabbis attending a meeting of the Rabbinical
Assembly. The story quoted Rabbi Andrew Sachs, an Israeli born in the United States, who
said that John Paul II had done more to mend Jewish-Catholic relations than any
predecessor, "maybe more for the Jews than all the other popes combined."
One measure of the extent of John Pauls effort to heal the Catholic-Jewish
relationship comes by recalling Paul Paul VIs trip to Israel in 1964. Paul refused
to utter the word "Israel" and would not meet with Israels president. By
contrast, John Paul gave the State of Israel formal diplomatic recognition in 1993, has
met frequently with Israels religious and political leaders, and made a formal visit
to the president. In March, he also issued sweeping apologies for the past sins of
Christians against the Jews, both in Rome and in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem Holocaust
Theres no question that the popes personal history as a Polish witness to
the Holocaust gave him both a special interest and a special credibility in healing the
breach with Judaism. He did, by many accounts, do the right thing during World War II. And
as pope, he built on the liberalizing theological statements of the Second Vatican Council
of the 1960s to repudiate Christian anti-Semitism and to speak of Judaism as
Christianitys permanent "older brother," as well as moving into a mode of
frequent, if limited, apologies.
"We fell in love with the man," Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo
Ben-Ami told Thomas ODwyer of the Ottawa Citizen at the ceremony marking
John Pauls departure from Israel. "He is an extraordinary person, full of
goodwill, a man of heart, and a man of justice."
But if the rapprochement with Judaism stands as a major achievement, John Pauls
twilight journey to the Holy Land also revealed the degree to which he has failed to make
progress on other problems that mean much to him. For John Paul also wished to make his
pilgrimage an occasion for establishing greater mutual respect among Christian bodies and
Where many Jews were willing to meet the Pope midway, the same cant be said for
Muslims or for the Christian group that John Paul has sought most ardently to reconcile,
the Eastern Orthodox. And as the Cold War and living memories of the Holocaust fade, these
are the ecumenical challenges that will push future popes hardest.
Islam and Catholicism, each with roughly one billion adherents, are locked in
competition in regions such as Africa, where serious confrontations are taking place now
in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan nations. During the papal visit to Israel, Muslim leaders
showed little interest in interfaith dialogue. In Bethlehem, local Muslims blasted the
call to prayer from an adjacent minaret during the middle of a papal mass.
Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, the deputy chief of the Palestinian Islamic courts, agreed to
stand in for Jerusalems Grand Mufti, Ikrima Sabri, at a meeting hosted by the pope.
Sabri had backed out, saying he could not sit with rabbis as long as Palestine was
occupied by Israelis. The New York Times reported on March 24 that Tamimi spoke
about "the ursurpation" of national rights and "aggression against people,
property, and holy places." He then turned to the pope and said he had a prior
engagement and left the room.
This was, perhaps, a smoother performance than the muftis. Meeting later with the
pope at the al-Aqsa mosque, Sabri sought Vatican help in gaining recognition of Jerusalem
as a Palestinian city. "The city of Jerusalem has been eternally bonded to
Islam," Sabri was quoted in the March 27 Scotsman of Edinburgh. The pope
responded that the city was "part of the common patrimony of our religions and of the
whole of humanity." Outside the mosque, a few Muslims yelled abuse at their leaders.
"You have just given the keys of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque to the infidel Pope.
Shame on you."
The pope also got a cool reception from the Greek Orthodox, the largest communion of
Christians in Israel and Jordan. With upwards of 150 million believers, the network of
Eastern Orthodox churches form the second largest community of Christians in the world.
John Paul has repeatedly articulated his longing for reunion with the Orthodox.
But relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox are arguably worse now than they
were a decade ago, largely because the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe
has reopened ancient competition between Catholics and Orthodox.
These tensions were discernable during the papal visit to Jordan and Israel, as well as
in the visit that the pope made to Egypt and Mt. Sinai in February as a prelude to his
trip to Israel. The U.S. news media did not entirely ignore the uneasy relationship
between Catholics and the Orthodox. But among American journalists, only Alessandra
Stanley of the New York Times gave the angle substantial attention.
Stanley began her coverage with the February trip to St. Catherines Monastery on
Mt. Sinai, an ancient and still important center of Greek Orthodox monasticism. She
reported that John Paul had tried to persuade the monastery to allow him to invite Jewish,
Christian, and Muslim leaders for a meeting intended "to symbolize reconciliation in
the new millenium" at the site where all three religions teach that Moses received
the Ten Commandments.
The flat refusal of the Greek monks to permit the meeting was a sore disappointment to
the pope, as was their refusal to let him use a monastery chapel for a mass, and their
refusal to pray together with the pope. The monks greeted John Paul but then left in a
body as his prayers began in the monasterys olive grove. "It is impossible, it
is against our canon law," Stanley quoted Archbishop Damianoss explanation of
his refusal to pray with the pope. The abbot added that in his view the reunion of
Catholics and Orthodox was "possible, but it would take a miracle."
Stanley wrote that the "Greek Orthodox church does not recognize the authority of
the pope, and in his introductory remarks Damianos addressed the pope as president
of the Roman Catholic Church." And while stating that the popes trip to
Egypt remained "a personal triumph," she did allow that the hostility of the
Greek Orthodox meant that it was "shadowed by some disappointment." (European
journalists were less reserved. The lede on Alan Philipss account of the Sinai
pilgrimage for the Sunday Telegraph of London reads: "The pilgrimage of Pope
John Paul II to the place where God first revealed himself to Moses was soured yesterday
by a sullen welcome from the Orthodox custodians of the ancient monastery at the foot of
The shadow lengthened noticeably during the trip to Israel. Few stories described John
Pauls meeting with other Christian leaders at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate of Jerusalem, but Stanleys article in the March 25 edition of the Times
contained an extraordinary account of an event that underscores the current chilliness of
According to Stanley, the papal nuncio to Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi,
"took the microphone and asked that all church leaders present recite together the
Lords prayer each in their own language. It was an unscripted suggestion.
"On the right of the elegant reception room were Roman Catholics, Melkites,
Maronite Christians, Armenian Catholics and Chaldeans (and the head of the Church of
Scotland in green tartan trousers and a frock coat) were seated., all rose and recited the
prayer, mostly in Latin. The left side, which included Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox,
Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Copts, also rose, but almost all remained silent. So did
Patriarch Diodoros I. We are not used to saying the Lords Prayer in these
circumstances, Father Aleksandr, a Russian-born priest who works for the Greek
Orthodox Patriarchy and was at the meeting, said afterward. You cannot just jump
Later in the ceremony which began with deafening Orthodox silence, Patriarch Diodoros,
like the monks on Mt. Sinai, "reminded (the pope) of his grievances against
For the Orthodox, who reject papal claims to universal authority over the church and
whose grievances about Western use of force against them stretch back a millennium,
reunion will come only after the papacy makes concrete concessions and not merely gestures
After more than 20 years of trying, John Paul has succeeded in winning an invitation to
visit only two Orthodox countries, Romania and Georgia, both in 1999. The Russians and the
Greeks have presented endless difficulties for him. The Orthodox Church of Greece shut
down its bilateral theological dialogue with the Vatican in 1989 and the Russian Church
did so in 1993. As recently as June, Russian president Vladimir Putin traveled all the way
to Rome to explain why the time wasnt ripe for a papal visit to Russia, the nation
that houses the majority of all Orthodox Christians.
Some Russian hierarchs have been quoted recently saying that a pope should not be
invited to Russia until the moment when reunion has been negotiated and achieved.
Meanwhile, there are serious tensions between the Orthodox and Catholic minorities in
Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Romania, and, of course, the former Yugoslavia.
This Catholic-Orthodox impasse, which showed the limits of the papal pilgrimages
success, was barely discussed by other American journalists. To the extent that it was,
they tended to dismiss it as of little concern to rank-and-file Christians. Even Stanley,
whose coverage of the trip was easily the most thorough and analytical, closed her account
of the meeting at the Jerusalem patriarchate by noting that "the rift is far more
important to leaders than most Christians, who are a small minority in Israel and the
Palestinian-controlled territories. The important thing is for the pope to help
settle the question of Palestine," said Nicholas Shbeita, a Greek Orthodox Christian
who runs a gift shop near the Holy Sepulchre."
But Roman Catholic officials themselves suggested that progress with the Orthodox was a
high papal priority thats going nowhere. "The pope has put so much effort into
ecumenical dialogue," the Rev. John Long, a Jesuit priest involved in intra-Christian
dialogue, told the New York Times February 24. "We dont know if other
popes will give it the same priority. Its a bit sad that his initiative has not been
seized by other churches."