Signs of the Times

Pope Preaches Reconciliation and Peace in Holy Land

With slow but determined steps, Pope John Paul II made his long-desired pilgrimage to the Holy Land, preaching peace and reconciliation among the region's peoples and religions. From the heights of Mount Nebo in Jordan to the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the pope visited holy sites of the Old and New Testaments, making dramatic gestures of respect for jews and Muslims and pleading for the unity of Christians.

Walking carefully through a minefield of political sensitivities, Pope John Paul also urged a renewed commitment to the Middle East peace process, guaranteeing die security of Israel but also satisfying the Palestinians' right to a homeland. The March 20-26 trip culminated in Jerusalem with visits to the city's holiest Muslim, Jewish and Christian sites.


On March 2 6 he went to Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism. The stooped pontiff stood and placed his trembling hand upon the massive stone blocks of the 2,000-year-old wall, as Jews have done for centuries. As is the Jewish practice, he left a prayer written on a piece of paper in a crevice between the stones. The prayer was the one he recited earlier in the month at the Vatican, asking God's forgiveness for Christians who have "caused these children of yours to suffer." The prayer is to be put on display at the museum at Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of the Israeli Cabinet, welcomed the pope to the wall, saying the pope's visit confirmed the Catholic Church's commitment to "end die era of hatred, humiliation and persecution of the Jewish people." He also said the time had come for all sides to "end the manipulation of the sanctity of Jerusalem for political gain."

The pope's visit was plagued by Israelis and Palestinians using speeches to the pope to trade claims to the city as their own capital. Just before visiting the Western Wall, the pope met with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Ikrema Sabri, who asked the pope to promote the end of "Israeli occupation of Jerusalem." The pope told Muslim leaders at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex that the city was the common patrimony of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Pope John Paul's last appointment in Israel was his celebration of Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which he described as "the most hallowed place on earth." Another highlight for the pope was his Mass on March 2 5 at Nazareth, which has been the scene of tensions between Christians and Muslims over Muslim plans to build a mosque on a plot of land adjacent to the basilica. But all was calm on the day of the pope's visit to Jesus' hometown.

The papal visit was filled with gestures of ecumenical good will and cooperation from all the region's churches, including the presence of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant clerics at papal liturgies. Meeting the Christian leaders at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem March 25, Pope John Paul said, "Only in a spirit of mutual respect and support can the Christian presence flourish here in a community alive with its traditions and confident in facing the social, cultural and political challenges of an evolving situation. " In a region where political conflicts and interreligious tensions are almost a daily reality, he said, "it is essential to overcome the scandalous impression given by our disagreements and arguments."

The papal pilgrimage also marked a milestone in Catholic-Jewish relations and attempted to promote a serious and respectful dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims based on their faith in the same God. Israel's leading rabbis warmly received Pope John Paul 11 at the ceremonial offices of the chief rabbinate, in a historic first meeting with the pontiff. In contrast to the reports of rabbinical opposition to the papal visit that dominated the media prior to the pope's arrival in Israel, when he met with the rabbis there was a spontaneous outpouring of affection from them. The rabbis ignored protocol and pressed forward to meet the pope and shake his hand when he -arrived. Later he prayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and said the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jews was a tragedy that "burns itself onto our souls." He listened to dramatic testimonials from the wartime period, then was reunited with about 3 0 Jewish survivors from his Polish hometown, greeting some by name. "No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale," the pope said.

Chronic controversies over the extent of the church's apology to Jews seemed temporarily forgotten by the Jewish leaders who welcomed the pontiff as a friend of Israel and their religion. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who escorted the pope through the Holocaust memorial, said the pope had done "more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the church toward the Jewish people"-a thought echoed by several participants.

The pope's efforts to promote interreligious dialogue were not quite so successful. At a meeting on March 23 of interreligious leaders intended to symbolize reconciliation among the three monotheistic religions, one of Israel's chief rabbis and a leading Muslim cleric sparred verbally over the issue of Jerusalem. The pope did not directly address the verbal tug-of-war by his hosts on the status of Jerusalem, but he strongly defended Palestinians' right to a homeland and said their "legitimate aspirations" would only be met through a negotiated settlement.

On March 24 Pope John Paul went to the Sea of Galilee, the region where Jesus spent the most time with his disciples. On the Mount of Beatitudes near Korazim, he celebrated Mass for an estimated 50,000 youths and called on them to become true disciples as well. "It is strange that Jesus exalts those whom the world generally regards as weak," the pope said. "He says to them, 'Blessed are you who seem to be losers, because you are the true winners: The kingdom of heaven is yours!...

Chicago Priest Named New House Chaplain

House Speaker Dennis Hastert named a Catholic priest, Father Daniel Coughlin, as the new House chaplain on March 23, ending a four-month political struggle over who would get the position. Father Coughlin, vicar for priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago, had not applied for the position that had stirred up political controversy in the House when Democrats accused Republican leaders of anti-Catholic bias for not selecting a top candidate, Father Timothy O'Brien, for the job. The Rev. Charles Wright, die Presbyterian minister first chosen by the Speaker, withdrew his name from consideration on March 21.

In announcing Father Coughlin's appointment on the House floor, Hastert, Republican of Illinois, accused Democrats of playing an "unseemly political game" and said he did not "easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry." The dispute over who would replace the retiring chaplain, the Rev. James Ford, began in December when House leaders announced their selection of the Rev. Wright for the job, even though a bipartisan selection committee had voted in favor of Father Timothy O'Brien, a Marquette University professor of political science. The selection committee, charged with submitting three final candidates to the Speaker's office, did not officially rank the candidates, but committee leaders personally told Hastert that they considered Father O'Brien to be the best qualified.

In looking to quickly resolve the chaplain crisis, Hastert had recently turned to Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, asking for a list of priests who might qualify for the job.

Israelis Say Pope Made 'Unique Contribution to Reconciliation'

Israelis called Pope John Paul H's visit to the Holy Land a "tremendous and unique contribution to reconciliation" between Christians and Jews as the pontiff s pilgrimage came to its conclusion. "I believe this visit has brought to an end an era of conflict, war and bloodshed between Christians and Jews," Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon told a group of journalists March 26. "We are in a new millennium of reconciliation and peace," he said. Placing a note in the Western Wall, "where he asked for forgiveness from the sons of Abraham, brought his visit to a climax and this will have a long-term effect between us and the Catholic world," he added.

Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, said the coverage of the pope had been largely favorable in the Israeli media and that the general perception of the pope among Israelis was sure to be positive. "This has been a major, major rnilestone in Catholic-Jewish relations," he said. Kronish said the main emphasis now needed to be in pushing forward issues of education in both communities, specifically within the Jewish-Israeli context in order to inform Israeli Jews about the changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church.

Jesuits Seek Inquiry on 1989 Murders in El Salvador

The Society of Jesus has formally petitioned the Salvadoran attorney general to investigate the participation of the former president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, and six retired generals in the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The rector of the Central American University in San Salvador, Jose Maria Tojeira, S.J., said the Jesuits were accusing Cristiani, currently president of the ruling ARENA party, and his former defense minister, Gen. Humberto Larios, of guilt by omission, since they had prior knowledge of plans to carry out the killings but "did not do anything to prevent them." The other generals, all members of the army high command at the time, are accused of direct participation in the crime.

Peace Activists to Prison for 'Malicious Destruction'

Ignoring the prosecutor's suggested guidelines, James T. Smith, a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, imposed stiff sentences on four Catholic peace activists convicted of malicious destruction of Maryland Air National Guard warplanes. Philip Berrigan received the maximum sentence: 30 months in prison. Stephen Kelly, S.J., Susan Crane and Elizabeth Walz were also sentenced. The prosecutor's guidelines suggested punishment ranging from probation to a year in jail. The judge also ordered the defendants to pay $88,622. t I to cover the cost of the damage they did to two A- 10 Warthog aircraft on Dec. 19, 1999. During the trial the judge refused to allow evidence that the A-10's were armed with depleted uranium ammunition that has devastating environmental and health effects.

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