The Magazine

The Holy Father in the Holy Land

From the April 10, 2000 issue: Christian-Jewish relations will never be the same after the pope's visit to Israel.

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By GEORGE WEIGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


SHORTLY AFTER his election as pope in October 1978, John Paul II had an idea: He should spend his first Christmas in Bethlehem. When he broached this to the traditional managers of popes, they were aghast. Bethlehem was in disputed territory; the Holy See had no diplomatic relations with any state in the region; popes simply didn't do drop-bys; the logistics were impossible to arrange. For one of the few times in his 21-year pontificate, John Paul let his evangelical instincts be trumped by the ingrained cautiousness of the Vatican's diplomats: He spent Christmas 1978 in Rome.

But on numerous occasions in the ensuing years, he would ask those same diplomats, "When will you let me go?" In 1994, in an apostolic letter announcing the Great Jubilee of 2000, he proposed making a lengthy pilgrimage to the great sites of biblical history; for the next five years, there were endless arguments about whether and how it could be done. Finally, John Paul had had enough. On June 29, 1999, he wrote a letter to the entire Catholic Church announcing, quite simply, that he would go to the Holy Land in 2000. And now he has done it.

John Paul insisted that his was a pilgrimage without political or diplomatic purpose. Virtually everyone present could feel and see the truth of this. Here was a man immersed in prayer, walking in the steps of Christ, reminding the world that the year 2000 is not a mere calendrical quirk. By celebrating Mass at the traditional site of Christ's last supper with his apostles, by preaching at the site of his sermon on the mount, by praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, at Calvary, and at the tomb where Christ's body was laid, John Paul II fulfilled one of the deepest desires of his Christian heart.

At the same time, he reminded Christians (and others) taught by generations of scholars to be skeptical of the Bible that biblical religion is a gritty, earthy business. Critical scholarship can help us read the Bible more intelligently. But at bottom, biblical religion is about a God who, as John Paul put it on his arrival in Israel, "has gone before us and leads us on"--a God who entered history in order to redeem history. Biblical religion is not simply an idea; it is built on events that happened to real people, in real places, at particular moments in time. As he satisfied his yearning to be a pilgrim in those places, John Paul II was also bearing witness to that truth.

But the papacy is an inherently public office, and as the intertwined papal and Israeli flags on Jerusalem's lampposts suggested, John Paul came to the Holy Land as the embodiment of a complex and often tortured history. He also came as Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, a priest, and a pope who has invested enormous energy in building a new conversation between Catholics and Jews. The interplay of that history and this singular personality made for some of the week's most dramatic moments.

For years, some Israeli scholars argued that the Catholic Church could never "recognize" the Jewish state for theological reasons. To do so, they claimed, would be to deny what they took to be Catholic doctrine, namely, that the Jews were condemned to wander the earth as punishment for their forefathers' rejection of Jesus as the messiah. That this was never Catholic doctrine seemed to make no difference, no matter how often that was explained. And as the pope prepared to arrive at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv on March 21, six years after full diplomatic relations had been established between the Holy See and the state of Israel, one Israeli academic was still claiming that the pope's surreptitious political agenda was to delegitimate the Jewish state and its positions on Middle East issues.

Academics will be academics, and no doubt some of them will continue to make such utterly implausible claims. But for much of the world, the sight of the bishop of Rome raising a hand in salute at the Israeli flag, listening to the solemn playing of "Hatikvah," and being welcomed as an honored guest by the Jewish state settled the matter. What had been accomplished legally in the 1993 Basic Agreement between the Vatican and Israel was now plain for all to see. The remaining bigots notwithstanding, Catholic-Jewish relations could never be the same.

That point was driven home when John Paul II went to the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on March 23 to pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust. Those who insist on treating Holocaust history as a kind of zero-sum negotiation over degrees of responsibility had been working the press overtime, arguing for or against the proposition that the pope ought to "go farther" this time than in past pronouncements. John Paul took the event to an entirely different level in an intensely personal speech.