BOSTON — Pope Benedict XVI has stumbled throughout his papacy.
And as his pilgrimage of “hope” through the Holy Land leads him across the storied Jordan River into Jerusalem Monday, he will have to watch every step he takes in those iconic red shoes.
He has offended Muslims and Jews in the past and one misstep in the Middle East’s unforgiving terrain could easily trigger yet another crisis in a land where the wounds from the war in Gaza are still fresh and the peace process lays buried under the rubble.
Admittedly, the Italian-made, ruby footwear that Benedict dons as part of the traditional papal dress code are hard shoes to fill.
His predecessor Pope John Paul II had a spiritual gracefulness and walked confidently into history when he made his journey to the Holy Land in 2000 to mark the turn of the millennium.
John Paul “The Great,” as some Vatican historians have already taken to calling him, did much to heal centuries of mistrust between Catholics and Jews and gently reminded all Catholics that the virulent anti-Semitism that emerged out of Christendom was a sin for which he sought atonement. He spoke of one family of God and of Judaism as “the older brother” of Christianity.
He spoke respectfully to Muslims about the shared values of the three Abrahamic faiths and he asserted a balanced cry for justice for Palestinians, while also carefully recognizing the miraculous journey that returned the Jews to their homeland with the creation of the state of Israel. He said both peoples deserved to live in peace.
This pope has shown none of that grace, nor does he exude the confidence and moral authority of his predecessor. He shuffles forward making one gaffe after another.
Of the Holy Land’s three Abrahamic faiths, it is hard to say which one — Islam, Judaism or Christianity — Pope Benedict XVI has alienated more.
The moment white smoke emerged from the Vatican signaling a new papacy in 2005, Jews around the world greeted the ascendancy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with skepticism. Here was a German-born pontiff who served in Hitler Youth and was briefly conscripted into the German Army at the end of the war. This pope did little to quell suspicions about what he might harbor in his heart when he revoked the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a schismatic bishop from an ultra-orthodox sect who ignited global outrage with his denial of the scope of the Holocaust.
Returning Wiliamson to the clerical fold was a mistake the pope has yet to rectify despite an outcry of condemnation from Israel and from Jewish communities around the world.
With Muslims, Benedict has also caused a great deal of alienation. In 2006, he gave a speech in Germany and quoted a Byzantine emperor who said that Islam encouraged violence and brought things “evil and inhuman.”
The pope has apologized to Jews and Muslims for these comments, and he is working hard on this trip to say the right things. But the mistrust lingers.
His clumsiness has also done damage to the Holy Land’s third Abrahamic faith, Christianity. Arab Christians are an important but rapidly vanishing presence in the Holy Land. The Holy Land’s Christian Palestinians, who must live between the force of a Jewish state and the rising fundamentalism of an Islamic Palestinian leadership, suffer when the pope alienates both sides that surround them. The pope plans to visit with Iraqi Christian exiles and other Arab Christians to recognize their plight, but the damage he has done to their relations with Jews and Muslims is significant.
A century ago, Christians represented as much as 20 percent of the Holy Land. Decades of war, violence and intolerance of the land have forced large waves of Christian migration to Europe and the Americas. And now Christians represent not much more than 1 percent of the population. Some demographers fear that the living Christian presence in the place where the faith began may disappear altogether within a generation.
Compare the imagery between this papal trip and that of John Paul II. John Paul II went to the Holocaust Memorial and met with survivors of the Holocaust, some of whom he himself had even helped to save from the Nazis. John Paul’s eyes welled with tears that day and the room was heavy with emotion, an old man remembering the nightmare of what he saw in his native Poland and what he as a young cleric stood up against.
Now Benedict refuses to go to a new wing of the Holocaust museum because he disagrees with the historical depiction of the World War II-era Pope Pius XII. The exhibit presents the pope as “neutral” in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The powerful presence of Pope John Paul II and the hard work he did to heal divisions between Catholics and Jews and the hand he extended to Islam gave him a moral authority to push hard for peace. Sadly, the intifada kicked off just months after his visit and the two sides were once again pulled into conflict with each other, a conflict that still simmers and sometimes boils over as it did in Gaza earlier this year.
Any false step by Benedict in Jerusalem could further inflame the burning tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in a “peace process” that truly does not deserve to be called that since there is no apparent “process” and it has not produced much “peace.”
The best way forward for this pope is to begin to walk more in step with the other two monotheistic faiths and realize that the only path to peace is through respect for all faiths. John Paul II understood that and lived that example.
John Paul preferred not to carry on the ancient custom of wearing red shoes as a symbol of martyrdom and the fire of the spirit. Instead he favored smart brown shoes. Walking shoes. Pope Benedict restored the ruby shoes, which are priced at nearly $700 a pair, as an example of a near fetish for tradition on every level.
Benedict XVI would do well to step beyond the obsession with tradition and walk a mile in the shoes of Israelis and Palestinians if he is going to leave any footprint in the ancient pathways of the Holy Land.
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