Pope Benedict is being criticized in Israel over his remarks about the Holocaust. "If you come to the Jewish land as a German – we had different expectations," Yuval Wultz, a 29 year old shopping in Jerusalem told the Washington Post. He was referring to Benedict’s speech at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust that looms large as an emotional focal point of contemporary Jewish life.
I watched the Pope’s speech. I read it. The Pope does not wear his emotions on his sleeve, to be sure. But, the Pope grasped, perhaps in a way a 29 year old cannot, that before the enormity of evil that was the Shoah, silence is an appropriate emotional response. Silence is not, of course, an appropriate political response and the Pope made clear that we must speak out so that the world will never forget what happened. But, he is being criticized for not saying something "touching" as one columnist wrote. It is unfair.
When I accompanied my Dad and Uncle to Poland to see where their parents grew up, we also went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am, as you might have guessed, a chatty person but there words failed me. After about two hours of walking the grounds and seeing the exhibits - the horrible haunting rooms filled with human hair, or with spectacles, or with other human artifacts - I had not said a word. My Dad asked if I was okay. I looked at him, remembered that he has a heart condition, and muttered that I just felt overwhelmed.
And so I did. But, inside I also felt something I still can’t describe and which, when I recall it even now, nine years later, makes me want to cry, and scream and vomit.
I do not know what Pope Benedict felt when he went to Yad Vashem. His words, "I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in horrific tragedy of the Shoah" seemed to me excruciatingly appropriate. This Pope – who never tires of telling us Christians that our faith is about God and therefore about us, not the other way round – seemed to be saying, "My visit here is not about me. It is about the victims and their God." That may not play well in an age when our culture encourages vicarious emotional responses. But, it struck me as profoundly true.
The Pope did what he does: He looked at us poor children of Eve and pointed us towards God. His emotional reticence keeps the spotlight pointed away from himself, not only because he is shy, but because the Pope believes his job is to shine the light on God in a world in danger of forgetting Him. At Yad Vashem, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, you can smell the evil, the radical absence of God. To point us to God in such a place is no small gift and no small ministry.