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.

Once asked, "Do you ever cry?" John Paul II responded, "Not outside." This man of profound emotion was surely crying inside as he walked slowly to the rostrum before the eternal flame, the faces of childhood friends who perished in the death camps before his mind's eye. He began on precisely the right note: "In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah."

Remembrance, he continued after a moment, must be in the service of a noble cause: "We wish to remember for a purpose," he said, "to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism." And knowing that evil's victory during the Final Solution had ensnared too many Christians, he then made what no one watching could doubt was a heartfelt statement of repentance: "As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place." Most especially including, it was clear, the times and places represented by Yad Vashem.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's moving address thanked John Paul for doing more for Jewish-Catholic relations than any pope in history. The pope's tear-filled meeting with Holocaust survivors from his hometown completed an hour that reduced the previously cacophonous NBC/ MSNBC studios at the Jerusalem Hilton, where I was working, to silence. A few days later, an Israeli friend, a soldier-intellectual of wide experience, called to say, "I simply had to tell you that my wife and I were crying throughout the pope's visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing; nothing more needed to be said."

Interestingly, one of the things the papal pilgrimage suggested to Jews and Catholics alike was the degree to which a new relationship between them is going to require a significant development in Jewish understandings of contemporary Catholicism. A series of local polls conducted by Jewish-led interfaith centers in Israel uncovered profound ignorance of the sea-change the Church has undergone in the past 35 years. Only 44 percent of Israelis, according to one poll, know that the Catholic Church has publicly and flatly condemned anti-Semitism. Fewer still, one suspects, realize what it means when the pope teaches that God's covenant with the Jewish people is permanent--that in the Catholic perspective, Judaism has an abiding religious integrity and an indispensable moral mission in the world. And while the Second Vatican Council's rejection of the hoary deicide charge against the Jews seems rather widely known in Israel, a considerable number of well-meaning Jewish intellectuals continue to think that serious inter-faith dialogue at the theological level is simply impossible.

One learned and kindly man, for example, told me that, while he very much admired John Paul II, the new, religiously focused conversation the pope was proposing between Catholics and Jews just wasn't on the cards. When I asked why, he replied, "Because your sacred text is anti-Semitic." When I asked what that meant, he cited the Gospel of St. John and its multiple references to "the Jews" in their contestation with Jesus.

I tried to explain that 200 years of New Testament scholarship had made clear that all the Gospels were written, to one degree or another, in a polemical context amidst a family quarrel--the fight that eventually saw the Christian movement separate, around 70 A.D., from what would become rabbinic Judaism. And in any case, I said, "You can't read 'the Jews' in John's Gospel as though St. John were describing a blackballing session at an upmarket men's club in the 1920s." My friend seemed struck by this, said he would think about it, and hoped that what I said reflected something other than elite Catholic opinion. I assured him that it did, and that when the people in my parish heard "the Jews" during the Good Friday reading of the Passion according to St. John, they were hearing a story about individuals two millennia ago, not making a summary judgment about an entire people.

But his surprise at this was chastening. There has been immense progress in Catholic-Jewish dialogue since the mid-1960s. But dialogue among religious professionals in Jewish and Catholic organizations is one thing; deeply ingrained attitudes and suspicions are another. In that sense, the most important thing John Paul II's pilgrimage to the Holy Land will contribute to the dialogue is a new iconography.

The pope bent in silent homage over the eternal flame at Yad Vashem; the pope at the Western Wall; the pope in happy conversation with the president and prime minister of a sovereign Jewish state--these are images that communicate the truth of this new relationship very, very powerfully. They cannot be ignored. No one can say, plausibly, that these were empty gestures by a crafty politician. No one can reasonably doubt, now, that things have changed.

George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (HarperCollins). He was in Jerusalem as a commentator for NBC and MSNBC.

Photo courtesy U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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