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Modest Successes And Missed Chances In Pope's Trip

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« on: May 17, 2009, 10:09:41 am »

                                Modest Successes and Missed Chances in Pope’s Trip

The New York Times
Published: May 16, 2009

— Pope Benedict XVI said that he wanted to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and experience the Holy Land first hand. So photographers waited eagerly by a turgid pool in the Jordan River for the pope to peer from a wooden promontory to a central spot in Christianity, where Christ is believed to have been baptized.

But Benedict declined to get out of the golf cart that brought him there.

Certainly an 82-year-old pope is entitled to remain seated if he likes. Yet the drive-by pilgrimage seemed to sum up his eight-day trip to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank — and indeed his entire papacy so far.

It reflected what critics describe as a lack of understanding, or interest, in the public aspects of his office that has led to a series of public-relations miscues and questions about his skills as a diplomat.

At a news conference, the Vatican spokesman later explained that the pope had seen all he needed to see without getting out of the cart, a statement indicative of a related problem: that the Vatican seems to assume Benedict’s actions and words are self-explanatory, when often they are not. Sometimes the gesture, timing and location count more than the close reading.

This shortcoming was on display at the event that aroused the most criticism during the trip: his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on Monday. Many Israelis were upset that the pope never uttered the words German or Nazi, did not speak of his own experience as an unwilling conscript into the Hitler Youth and gave the impression of being academic and removed in the face of such horror.

To many, the speech was a missed opportunity for both the headlines and the history books.

“This is the last pope, most certainly, who will have lived through World War II, grown up under the Nazi regime, and probably the last pope from Europe,” said David Gibson, the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World.” “In many respects I think he could have moved things forward in a remarkable way.”

Asked why the pope seemed tone deaf to the moment, the Vatican explained that he had previously spoken about his own experiences and had denounced the Holocaust in more emotional terms, and that he had no need to repeat himself. The pope’s seeming obliviousness, as well as the Vatican’s puzzled and groping response, echoed previous controversies of this papacy.

In January, Benedict reinstated four schismatic bishops, including one who had repeatedly denied the scope of the Holocaust. The Vatican said then that the pope had been focused on healing a rift in the church and was not aware of the Holocaust denial.

After a speech in 2006 in which he quoted a medieval scholar saying that Islam brought things “evil and inhuman,” he appeared to be taken by surprise by the wave of anger generated in the Islamic world.

Both episodes were followed by a series of official clarifications and apologies.

But whatever the failings in symbolism, his trip was in many ways a success in substance.

His complex itinerary through Jordan and Israel could have gone wrong at every turn, and at every turn the region’s opposing players tried to use his presence to make their own political points: the Palestinians spoke of Israeli oppression in his presence; the new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, urged him to denounce Iran.

Yet Benedict managed to avoid missteps of the kind that previously outraged Muslims and Jews. His trip to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and endorsement of a Palestinian state while visiting the West Bank went a long way toward smoothing relations with the Muslim world.

In fact, the endorsement, delivered before a towering concrete-and-barbed-wire separation barrier, appeared to be one instance in which he effectively used the symbolism that the landscape offered. But that success had the side effect of magnifying the perception of his clumsiness toward Jewish symbols and history.

Perhaps most important, Benedict managed to avoid any major gaffes, a recurring problem in his papacy and no small feat given the sensitivities in the region.

In some ways the task before him, as a shy professorial church insider, was perhaps too great to overcome on one trip. Benedict also suffered from following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, whose trip to the Holy Land in 2000 was the culmination of a beloved papacy. A headline in Friday’s Jerusalem Post read: “After JPII, the Papal Rock Star, Benedict Seemed Cold, Distant.”

The trip’s shortcomings were all the more glaring given the kind of outreach he might have achieved in a land holy to three major religions.

Many Israelis are ignorant about the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. At a news conference in Nazareth on Thursday, a local journalist addressed the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit priest, as “Mister Cardinal.”

But Israelis are taught from grade school about the church’s historic persecution of Jews, and many were disappointed that Benedict did not directly address that theme.

“They were looking for him to at least reflect and express regret about the role of the church and the role of Christians,” Mr. Gibson said. “That is something he has refused to do.”

In a farewell speech at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Friday, Benedict recalled his visit to Auschwitz in 2006 and issued a plea that the Holocaust must “never be forgotten or denied.” Yet once again he did not use the term Nazi or German.

Israeli society — and the fierce Israeli press — is as direct and self-critical as the Vatican is baroque and reluctant to address its own failings in public. After he left, Israeli newspapers were already making light of their criticism of Benedict, whose visit required 80,000 security officers and threw Jerusalem traffic into chaos.

On Friday, the satirical page of the daily Yediot Aharonot had a “quote” from an anonymous Jerusalem resident: “I expected him to apologize. At least for the traffic jams. But nothing. Anti-Semite.”

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
« Last Edit: May 17, 2009, 10:10:08 am by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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