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By David Came (May 18, 2009)
Pope Benedict XVI went to the Holy Land on May 8-15 as a pilgrim of mercy. There, he stressed the call to reconciliation, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy in pursuing the aims of inter-religious dialogue and peace in the troubled Middle East. His eight-day journey took him to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories as he walked in the footsteps of Moses, Jesus, and the Apostles.

The following is part 1 in a two-part series that highlights the Holy Father's pastoral visit through the lens of mercy:

May 8-10: The Kingdom of Jordan
Upon his arrival on May 8 in Amman, Jordan, the Pope praised the Hashemite Kingdom's respect for "religious freedom" in a country with a small Christian minority of 6 percent. As he was welcomed at the airport by King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, the Pope emphasized love for the "Almighty and Merciful God" and "fraternal love for one another" as the goal of inter-religious dialogue. He said, "I hope very much that this visit, and indeed all the initiatives designed to foster good relations between Christians and Muslims, will help us grow in love for the Almighty and Merciful God and in fraternal love for one another."

On his visit May 8 to the Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman, the Holy Father spoke of "God's unconditional love, which gives life to every human individual" and of how "lasting peace" is born of "compassion [and] forgiveness." He called for those at the center to pray "for the conversion of hearts to God's way of forgiveness and solidarity so that my hope — our hope — for unity and peace in the world will bear abundant fruit."

At Mount Nebo on May 9 — the spot where, as tradition holds, God showed Moses the Promised Land — Pope Benedict gave us a stirring call to witness to the Gospel of Mercy and to trust in God even though, like Moses, we may not live to see the fulfillment of God's plan:

Moses gazed upon the Promised Land from afar, at the end of his earthly life. His example reminds us that we, too, are part of the ageless pilgrimage of God's people through history. In the footsteps of the prophets, the apostles, and the saints, we are called to walk with the Lord, to carry on His mission, to bear witness to the Gospel of God's universal love and mercy. We are called to welcome the coming of Christ's Kingdom by our charity, our service to the poor, and our efforts to be a leaven of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace to the world around us. We know that, like Moses, we may not see the complete fulfillment of God's plan in our lifetime. Yet we trust that, by doing our small part, in fidelity to the vocation each of us has received, we will help to make straight the paths of the Lord and welcome the dawn of His Kingdom.

Then, in a visit to the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Jordan on May 9, the Holy Father called upon Christians and Muslims to live according to Almighty God's "merciful and compassionate" ways in pursuing the common good of all humanity:

Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty's decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God's creative design for the world and for history.

A high point for Pope Benedict's pilgrimage to the Holy Land came on May 10 when he walked in the footsteps of Jesus Himself by visiting the site of the Lord's baptism in the Jordan River at Bethany. There, the Holy Father said, "Jesus stood in line with sinners and accepted John's baptism of penance as a prophetic gift of His own passion, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins."

In his discourse at the Jordan, the Holy Father applied Jesus' baptismal example of the call to forgiveness of sins to that of Christians in the present-day Holy Land, saying, "In the Middle East, marked by tragic suffering, by years of violence and unresolved tensions, Christians are called to offer their contribution, inspired by the example of Jesus, of reconciliation and peace through forgiveness and generosity."

Another highlight came after Mass at Amman International Stadium on May 10 during the Pope's midday Regina Caeli message. In his message, he spoke of the "prophetic charism of women as bearers of love, teachers of mercy, and artisans of peace" and of the Blessed Virgin Mary as "the Mother of Mercy and Queen of Peace":

During the Mass I spoke about the prophetic charism of women as bearers of love, teachers of mercy, and artisans of peace. The supreme model of womanly virtue is the Blessed Virgin Mary: Mother of Mercy and Queen of Peace. As we turn to her now, let us seek her maternal intercession for all the families of these lands, that they be truly schools of prayer and schools of love. Let us ask the Mother of the Church to look down in mercy upon all the Christians in these lands, and with the help of her prayers, may they be truly one in the faith they profess and the witness they bear.

May 11-12: Israel
During his stay in Israel, Pope Benedict spoke out firmly against anti-semitism, called for interfaith dialogue as the path to peace, and encouraged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

As in Jordan, a call to forgiveness and reconciliation was in the forefront of the Holy Father's greetings, speeches, and homilies. Upon his arrival at Tel Aviv International Airport, he encouraged the Christians of Israel and throughout the Holy Land, "By your faithful witness to Him who preached forgiveness and reconciliation, by your commitment to uphold the sacredness of every human life, you can make a particular contribution to ending the hostilities that for so long have afflicted this land."

Pope Benedict's own witness to the Church's "deep compassion" and concern for the victims of hatred and atrocities was evident when he visited on May 11 in Jerusalem the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Shoah (the holocaust).

In poignant language, he said:

The Catholic Church, committed to the teachings of Jesus and intent on imitating His love for all people, feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here. Similarly, she draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life, or religion — their sufferings are hers, and hers is their hope for justice. As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I reaffirm — like my predecessors — that the Church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.

Fittingly, the Holy Father closed his address at the holocaust memorial by "professing steadfast trust in God" and voicing a cry of the heart from Scripture for God's "mercies":

Professing our steadfast trust in God, we give voice to that cry [of the victims of genocide and hatred] using words from the Book of Lamentations which are full of significance for both Jews and Christians:

"The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, His mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is His faithfulness. My portion is the Lord, says my soul; therefore will I hope in Him. Good is the Lord to the one who waits for Him, to the soul that seeks Him; it is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord" (Lam 3:22-26).

Also, on May 11, in an address to President Shimon Peres at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict encouraged those in Israel working for peace, applauding them for their compassion and spirit of forgiveness. The Holy Father said he knows that "considerable numbers of men and women and young people are working for peace and solidarity through cultural programs and through initiatives of compassionate and practical outreach; humble enough to forgive, they have the courage to grasp the dream that is their right."

On May 12, in a visit to the Dome of the Rock — the area of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is important for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — Pope Benedict spoke to Muslims. He acknowledged the temptation to be ambivalent about the prospect of success in inter-religious dialogue. Then he countered how we have a basis for such dialogue in the infinite justice and mercy of God:

Yet we can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in Him the two exist in perfect unity. Those who confess His name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating His forgiveness, for both are intrinsically oriented to the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of the human family.

During his Holy Land pilgrimage, a particularly poignant moment came when he celebrated Mass on May 12 in the Valley of Josaphat in Jerusalem, in front of the Basilica of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. This was the very site where Jesus suffered His agony in the garden before going to His passion and death.

Cognizant of this, Pope Benedict in his homily encouraged the Christians of Jerusalem, who are dwindling in numbers, to cherish "the pledge of Christ's definitive victory over sin and death, bearing witness to the power of forgiveness, and showing forth the Church's deepest nature as the sign and sacrament of a humanity reconciled, renewed, and made one in Christ, the new Adam."

Then, later in his homily, in referring to the walls of Jerusalem, the holy city, he said in stirring language:

There should be no place within these walls for narrowness, discrimination, violence, and injustice. Believers in a God of mercy — whether they identify themselves as Jews, Christians, or Muslims — must be the first to promote this culture of reconciliation and peace, however painstakingly slow the process may be, and however burdensome the weight of past memories.

Here, the Holy Father cuts to the quick on how all "believers in a God of mercy" must promote a "culture of reconciliation and peace."

May 13: Palestinian Territories
Pope Benedict was welcomed to the Palestinian Territories on May 13 by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, at the presidential palace in Bethlehem. In his greeting, he told the president and the Palestinian people: "To those among you who mourn the loss of family members and loved ones in the hostilities, particularly the recent conflict in Gaza, I offer an assurance of deep compassion and frequent remembrance in prayer."

Then, in referring to the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, he said, "I plead with all the parties to this longstanding conflict to put aside whatever grievances and divisions still stand in the way of reconciliation, and to reach out with generosity and compassion to all alike without discrimination."

He made a special plea to the young people of the Palestinian Territories to commit themselves to the work of reconciliation, instead of resorting to "acts of violence and terrorism":

I make a special appeal to the many young people throughout the Palestinian Territories today: Do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts. Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to any acts of violence or terrorism. Instead, let what you have experienced renew your determination to build peace. ... Let it inspire in you sentiments of compassion for all who suffer, zeal for reconciliation, and a firm belief in the possibility of a brighter future.

Continuing his pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus, Pope Benedict on May 13 celebrated Mass in Manger Square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity. He used powerful language in his homily to describe how, in the Incarnation, God's love triumphed over "hatred, selfishness, fear, and resentment":

In the birth of His Son, [God] revealed the coming of a Kingdom of love: a divine love which stoops down in order to bring healing and lift us up; a love which is revealed in the humiliation and weakness of the Cross, yet triumphs in a glorious resurrection to new life. Christ brought a Kingdom which is not of this world, yet a Kingdom which is capable of changing this world, for it has the power to change hearts, to enlighten minds, and to strengthen wills. By taking on our flesh, with all its weaknesses, and transfiguring it by the power of His Spirit, Jesus has called us to be witnesses of His victory over sin and death. And this is what the message of Bethlehem calls us to be: witnesses of the triumph of God's love over the hatred, selfishness, fear, and resentment which cripple human relationships and create division where brothers should dwell in unity, destruction where men should be building, despair where hope should flourish!

In light of our hope and victory in Christ, he stressed the need for courage among the Palestinian people in building a "new 'spiritual' infrastructure in their homeland. "Your homeland needs not only new economic and community structures," he said, "but most importantly, a new 'spiritual' infrastructure, capable of galvanizing the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development, and the promotion of the common good. ... Do not be afraid!"

In another stop on May 13, the Holy Father visited the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, which is skirted by the wall that, for security reasons, is being built between the Palestinian Territories and Israel by the Israeli government.

In his speech at the refugee camp, Pope Benedict described the wall as emblematic of current stalemate in relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis:

Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached — the wall. ... On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted. It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting. ... There has to be a willingness to take bold and imaginative initiatives towards reconciliation: If each insists on prior concessions from the other, the result can only be stalemate.

In almost a cry from the heart, Benedict ended his speech, "May peace flourish once more in these lands! May God bless His people with peace!"

On May 13, Pope Benedict visited the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem. He ended his address with a moving prayer to Mary that invoked her intercession and called on the Almighty to "show us His mercy":

Mary, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Mother of the Redeemer: we join the many generations who have called you "Blessed." Listen to your children as we call upon your name. ... May the Almighty show us His mercy, strengthen us with His power, and fill us with every good thing (cf. Lk 1:46-56). We ask your Son, Jesus, to bless these children and all children who suffer throughout the world. May they receive health of body, strength of mind, and peace of soul. But most of all, may they know that they are loved with a love that knows no bounds or limits: the love of Christ which surpasses all understanding (cf. Eph 3:19). Amen.

The Holy Father then ended his daylong visit to the Palestinian Territories by returning to the presidential palace in Bethlehem. There, he gave a farewell address in the presence of President Abbas. The need for peace and reconciliation was uppermost in his thoughts, as he said, "I assure all of you that I hold you in my heart and I long to see peace and reconciliation throughout these tormented lands."

Later in his address, he underscored the importance of patience and perseverance in pursuing peace and reconciliation:

No matter how intractable and deeply entrenched a conflict may appear to be, there are always grounds to hope that it can be resolved, that the patient and persevering efforts of those who work for peace and reconciliation will bear fruit in the end. My earnest prayer for you, the people of Palestine, is that all this will happen soon, and that you will at last be able to enjoy the peace, freedom, and stability that have eluded you for so long.

Read Part 2.

David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. His new book is Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.

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