Pope Benedict XVI will try to calm recent tensions between Jews and Catholics with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem during his planned May trip to the Holy Land, according to reports.
The visit to the museum will be closely watched, not only because of the recent controversy over the Pope’s lifting of an excommunication order on Bishop Richard Williamson, an anti-Semitic breakaway bishop who denies the extent of the Holocaust, but also because the exhibit contains a highly controversial description of Pope Pius XII.
The Vatican has long protested the museum's caption beneath a photograph of Pius XII, which claims the wartime pope did little to save the Jews during the World War II. The Vatican still hopes the caption will be revised, and has already asked several influential Jewish dignitaries and historians, such as Britain’s Sir Martin Gilbert, to exert pressure to change it.
According to the Italian daily Il Giornale, soon after arriving in Amman, Jordan, on May 8, the Pope will visit a mosque, his second visit to a place of Muslim worship since he prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 2006. While in Jordan, the Pope will also travel to Mount Nebo to visit an ancient basilica dedicated to Moses, and visit the site where Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River.
From May 11-15, the Pope is expected to be in Israel and the West Bank. His first stop will be in Tel Aviv where he will meet Israeli dignitaries including Israel’s president. He will then move on to Jerusalem where he will visit the recently renovated Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
While in Jerusalem, Benedict XVI will also meet Israel’s two chief rabbis and the grand mufti of Jerusalem. He will then fly by helicopter to Nazareth and Bethlehem, where he will meet Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority.
According to Il Giornale, the Pope will celebrate four open-air Masses during his week-long trip: the first will take place in Amman for the small Catholic community there; another will be held at the Valley of Josaphat under the Mount of Olives; a third at Mount Precipice just outside Nazareth; and the fourth in Manger Square in Bethlehem. Shortly before leaving for Rome, he is due to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ Resurrection, in Jerusalem.
Reports of the planned visit come after Newsmax learned that a team of Vatican officials returned from the region on Friday. They had been in region for the past month, laying the groundwork for the visit. Sources say despite the conflict in Gaza, and the controversy over Bishop Williamson, planning for the trip has not been interrupted.
Despite strong Jewish protests over the Bishop Williamson affair, some of those most keen to see the Pope in the Holy Land are Jewish leaders. Oded Wiener, spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said the trip was “very important for us – a visit that we’re expecting.” Giuseppe Lara, president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis, has said that the visit would be “a good thing”. “We hope that between now and May, the tensions and difficulties arising from the recent crisis will have been overcome,” he said.
The Pope’s journey to the Holy Land will be an important event for the new government of Israel whose electorate go to the polls Feb. 10. Israeli officials say the country is keen to welcome the Pope and stress that recent Jewish-Vatican tensions have no effect on bilateral diplomatic relations. The fact that Pope Benedict will meet Israeli dignitaries but no members of Hamas will also play well for the new government. However, should the conflict in Gaza re-ignite, the visit is likely to be postponed.
Even before the Williamson controversy, Pope Benedict had wanted this visit to the Holy Land to take place as soon as possible. That was partly in order to put a “freeze” on increasing tensions in Jewish-Catholic relations over recent disputes, but also to show his solidarity with Christians who are emigrating from the region in large numbers.
In respect of recent events, this visit takes on even greater urgency. But given the extreme sensitivity of this trip, some inside the Vatican are hoping that the Vatican’s communications operations will be much more effective in preventing the kind of gaffes that provoked misunderstandings and avoidable negative reactions in the past few weeks.
Senior officials within the Vatican have been openly discussing reform of Vatican communications after it became clear the lifting of the excommunications on the four bishops was carried out with minimal consultation. They say a common pattern has been emerging in this pontificate which shows the Pope is being poorly advised on possible fallout from his remarks.
According to papal spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope was unaware of Bishop Williamson’s past anti-Semitism before the decision was taken to lift his excommunication, placed on Williamson and three other bishops in 1988 for agreeing to be consecrated as bishops of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X without the consent of John Paul II.
Although unrelated, it nevertheless looked as if the German-born Pope was condoning or ignoring Williamson’s anti-Semitic views. Only days before, Williamson had denied the extent of the Holocaust on a Swedish television interview. To make matters worse, the announcement on the lifting of his excommunication was made on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It’s unclear whether these changes in Vatican public relations will be made in time for the visit, but pressure is growing for a more centralised communication system combined with much greater consultation. That may include some personnel changes at the highest level. Two or three senior figures, it is claimed, are not advising the Pope sufficiently.
“The system works if people are implementing it correctly, but these people are not implementing it correctly,” one Vatican inside source told Newsmax on condition of anonymity. “They are not carrying out the consultations with the different dicasteries [Vatican departments] that they should be doing.”
“If this was a democratic system someone would have to fall on their sword,” he said. “Someone has to be held accountable here.”
Official confirmation of the Pope’s trip to the Holy Land is expected by early March.
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