Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

What Really Happened in Uganda?

Go Down, Elian

A Religious Right Arrives in Canada

Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy

A Cardinal in Full

Mormon Women in the Real World

Peanuts for Christ

Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage

by Andrew Walsh

pope_pilgrimage.gif (439104 bytes)
Parkinson’s 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 Pope’s 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 region’s innumerable factions of contending Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

By and large, the world’s 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 Kloehn’s neat phrase. But the pope’s agenda was complex, and most reporters focused mostly on John Paul’s interactions with Jews, paying little attention to John Paul’s decidedly mixed success on the trip with two other interlocutors: the Eastern Orthodox and the Muslims.

A few headlines capture the common judgment of American reporters and editorial writers: "In Holy Land, Pope Was a Devout Diplomat; Pontiff’s Presence Impressed All Sides" (Washington Post); "Pope’s Israel Trip Draws Accolades" (Philadelphia Daily News); "John Paul’s Journey a Spiritual Triumph" (Hartford Courant).

Coverage of John Paul’s 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 Judaism’s 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 Judaism.

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 pope’s 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 Goldwyn’s 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 Paul’s effort to heal the Catholic-Jewish relationship comes by recalling Paul Paul VI’s trip to Israel in 1964. Paul refused to utter the word "Israel" and would not meet with Israel’s president. By contrast, John Paul gave the State of Israel formal diplomatic recognition in 1993, has met frequently with Israel’s 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 memorial.

There’s no question that the pope’s 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 Christianity’s 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 O’Dwyer of the Ottawa Citizen at the ceremony marking John Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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 with Islam.

Where many Jews were willing to meet the Pope midway, the same can’t 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 Jerusalem’s 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 mufti’s. 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. Catherine’s 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 monastery’s olive grove. "It is impossible, it is against our canon law," Stanley quoted Archbishop Damianos’s 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 pope’s 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 Philips’s 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 Mount Sinai.")

The shadow lengthened noticeably during the trip to Israel. Few stories described John Paul’s meeting with other Christian leaders at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, but Stanley’s article in the March 25 edition of the Times contained an extraordinary account of an event that underscores the current chilliness of Orthodox-Catholic relations.

According to Stanley, the papal nuncio to Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, "took the microphone and asked that all church leaders present recite together the Lord’s 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 Lord’s 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 over history.’"

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 Rome."

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 of reconciliation.

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 wasn’t 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 pilgrimage’s 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 that’s 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 don’t know if other popes will give it the same priority. It’s a bit sad that his initiative has not been seized by other churches."