Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

Westminster Interfaith Newsletter

Issue 62 – July 2009

Pope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land

"Build a civilization of love"

In March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI told representatives of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that he was preparing to visit the Holy Land as a pilgrim to pray for "the precious gift of unity and peace both within the region and for the worldwide human family". He hoped that his visit would help deepen the dialogue of the Church with the Jewish people so that Jews and Christians and also Muslims could "live in peace and harmony in this Holy Land".

During his trip, which also included an historic visit to Jordan's State Mosque, Pope Benedict made 29 public appearances in various locations, where he spoke primarily to Christians and Jews as well as Muslims and Druze. Many of his talks were addressed directly to religious leaders and their faithful, emphasizing and putting into practice, the words of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council Document on relations with people of other faiths, which states that "dialogue based on mutual understanding and respect is necessary and possible".

In his speeches and homilies, Pope Benedict touched on a variety of important issues of common interest to all the inhabitants of the Middle East and throughout the world. He encouraged Christians, in particular, to go ahead, without fear and be "a bridge of dialogue and constructive cooperation in the building of a culture of peace and replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration". Furthermore, in Bethlehem's Manger Square, he encouraged them to build up their local churches "making them workshops of dialogue, tolerance and hope, as well as solidarity and practical charity".

Talking to bishops, priests, religious and ecclesial movements in Nazareth, Galilee, Pope Benedict urged Catholics to be united among themselves, so that "the Church in the Holy Land can be clearly recognised as 'a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race' (Lumen Gentium 1)". He reminded them that their unity in faith, hope and love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, enabling them to be effective instruments of God's peace, helping to build genuine reconciliation between people of different faiths.

Still in Nazareth, at a Mass attended by about 50,000 faithful, the Pope focused on families and the key role they play in society. He spoke about the witness of married couples for the formation of consciences and the building of a civilization of love. Mentioning Mary, the mother of the Holy Family, he reminded the faithful of the need "to acknowledge and respect the God-given dignity and proper role of women, as well as their particular charisms and talents". Referring to the role of St Joseph as a father figure, he stressed how "authority placed at the service of love is more fruitful than power which seeks to dominate". He added, "in the family each person, whether the smallest child or the eldest relative, is valued for himself or herself, and not seen simply as a means to some other end". But his reference to children is what struck me most. Quoting Gaudium et Spes, Pope Benedict recalled that children have a special role to play in the growth of their parents in holiness. He urged children to "let the example of Jesus guide you, not only in showing respect for your parents, but also helping them discover more fully the love which gives our lives their deepest meaning", because, he went on to say, "in the Holy Family of Nazareth, it was Jesus who taught Mary and Joseph something of the love of God". Finally, he encouraged families to be a leaven of respect and love in the world around us by working to build bridges and find the way to peaceful coexistence, especially between Christian and Muslim communities. In conclusion, the Pope also urged "churches, schools and charitable institutions to break down walls and be seedbeds of encounter, dialogue, reconciliation and solidarity".

Before leaving the Holy Land, he emphasized the need to create two independent states that live in peace and security within internationally agreed borders and that this peace may "serve as a 'light to the nations' (Is 42:6) bringing hope to the many other regions that are affected by conflict". In his farewell address at Tel Aviv international airport, the Pope reflected on his visit and said, "This land is indeed a fertile ground for ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, and I pray that the rich variety of religious witness in the region will bear fruit in a growing mutual understanding and respect". He thanked everyone for the great hospitality he had received.

So, all in all, Pope Benedict communicated quite clearly what he had set out to say. Whether his words and his presence have a lasting effect on the situation in the Middle East remains to be seen, however, according to the pilgrimage director, who organised the Pope's trip to the Holy Land, his visit brought with it a new era in inter-religious dialogue. This sentiment has been echoed by other religious leaders. Let us hope and pray that this indeed is the case.


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