The calls have started from journalists inquiring about what to expect during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land from May 8 to 15. The stories are already set, it seems, by the series of troubles the Holy Father has had with Jews, by the high expectations set by his predecessor’s pilgrimage for the Great Jubilee in 2000 and by the pope’s choice of this time to make the trip—at a low point in Israeli-Palestinian relations and with a new Israeli government that is unfriendly to foreigners and native Palestinians. The tendency, understandably, is to set expectations low. For myself, I am ready to be surprised.
The first four years of Benedict’s pontificate have been somewhat uneven. Some problems to be sure, like the Good Friday prayer in the restored Latin liturgy, are of his own making. But some, like the Williamson affair, were media-driven controversies that played to people’s desires for stereotypes and simple story lines. Other moments, however, have been glowing achievements. Two years ago Benedict turned around the debacle of his Regensburg speech with a flawless visit to Turkey; and last year in the United States, where a host of problems awaited him—from independent-minded Catholic universities and their vociferous critics to the demands of victims of clerical sexual abuse—the pope made a joyful, inspiring pastoral visit that included multiple apologies to the victims. Smart-aleck commentators are too ready to underestimate him.
This trip is far more complex than his earlier trips, with a variety of audiences with disparate and in some cases desperate expectations: Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians; Muslims, Christians and Jews; citizens of sovereign states; a people under occupation; and refugees with no state of their own.
Much of the attention will focus on the Israel portions of the trip, but, in some ways, the trips to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories hold the greater interest. If there is a model for the future presence of Christians in the Middle East, it is probably to be found in Jordan. The kingdom’s Hashemite rulers have been greatly encouraging of the country’s Christian minority. The patriarchal vicar in Amman, Bishop Salim Sayyah, once said, “We are the happiest Christians in the Middle East.” The blessing of cornerstones for the Latin and Melkite churches in Bethany beyond the Jordan—the probable site of John’s baptizing and Jesus’ preaching—the evening of May 10 will be a reminder of the continuous Christian presence in the desert kingdom since the first century.
The pope’s brief visits to the Palestinian Territories will be the most difficult. Palestinians were vexed at the announcement of the pope’s pilgrimage just after the monthlong Israeli assault on Gaza and at a time when there is no letup of Israeli pressures on Palestinians even in relatively better-off regions like Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. Many have felt that by planning the trip now, the Vatican surrendered whatever diplomatic leverage it retained to help sustain the dwindling Christian presence in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area.
A host of restrictive policies and impositions make the prospects for living communities of native Christians in the land of Israel dim indeed. How Pope Benedict addresses his dispirited flock in the birthplace of Christianity will be the most demanding test of the trip. What they need is hope that things will improve and a commitment that the universal church will not abandon them. If Pope Benedict can put a spotlight on their plight, then for the Church of Jerusalem—and who should count more?—the visit will have been a success.