Dialogika

Walter Cardinal Kasper

There is no alternative to dialogue among Christians and Jews

[Published in L'Osservatore Romano.]


The pilgrimage of Benedict XVI to the sites of the origin of Christianity had various aspects. This made it very difficult, but also very emotional and important.

Naturally, it was meant above all for the flock of Catholics, tiny but nonetheless multiform in its rites: above all the Catholics of the Melkite, Maronite and Latin rites.

Christian Catholics have lived there for centuries, but like all Christians, they must daily face numerous difficulties: that is why, unfortunately, many Christians, particularly the younger ones, are emigrating.

That is why the community needed the encouragement of the Successor of Peter, who had received from the Lord the mandate to confirm his brothers in the faith.

The Paschal message of hope and peace, which was the thread running through all the homilies and discourses of the Pope, was welcomed with gratitude in all the stages of the pilgrimage: in Amman, in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem and in Nazareth.

These encounters were among the most beautiful moments of the trip. By themselves alone, they made the whole trip worthwhile.

But in the Holy Land — which, besides Israel, also includes Jordan and the Palestinian Territories — one's attention turns to the numerous Churches and Christian communities.

In no other place is the fragmentation of Christianity so visible and so sadly evident as it is in Jerusalem, where the first Christians had 'only one heart and one spirit.' And in no other place do Christians depend so much on each other as here.

It was therefore a pleasure to note that ecumenical efforts have borne good fruits even in Jerusalem. Without past efforts, which were far from simple precisely there, the cordial meetings of Benedict XVI at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate with the representatives of all Christian Churches with seats in Jerusalem - especially those with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch - would have been difficult to arrange.

These meetings showed that in the last decades, we have not been limited to publishing ecumenical documents on paper, but that through dialogue, we have experienced in life and in the heart a growth of reciprocal respect and esteem, of collaboration and brotherhood.

Of course, a lot still remains to be done and to study more deeply. But their meeting with the Pope and his words of understanding emanated encouragement for the future course of ecumenism, and not only in Jerusalem.

This is the Holy City for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Pope's meetings with the Jews — our older brothers in the faith of Abraham — was for many reasons the center of public interest.

Nonetheless, Benedict XVI did not come — as many erroneously maintained — as a German Pope with the well known weight that attaches to the German people in connection with the Holocaust.

That which he had to say in that respect, he already said in Cologne and Auschwitz.

He came — something which is much more important even from the merely political point of view — as the head of the universal Church, in order to express anew to the Jewish people his own personal affection as much as that of the Catholic Church.

The rejection of any form of anti-Semitism, of negationism, or even simply any diminishment of the Shoah, was expressed by him very clearly almost as soon as he touched Israeli soil at the airport in Tel Aviv.

And before leaving Israel, he reaffirmed this again to everyone with great clarity. He called the conciliar declaration Nostra aetate on relationships with other religions 'irrevocable.'

And so, almost everything that according to many Jewish representatives and the Israeli mass media was lacking in his speech at Yad Vashem, had been said. As if the simple repetition of the same statements do not trivialize them, rather than reinforcing!

And rightly, it is not in this Pope's style to be concerned about words which can seem provocative or what is politically correct. He had to convey a much more important message that no other representative with such eminence had been able to articulate before.

The Pope took his cue from the name of the memorial, Yad Vashem, which means 'a memorial, a name.' Following the sense and the cultural traces of Biblical and Jewish memory, he explained that man's dignity deserved to have a name and that this name is written indelibly by the hand of God.

Therefore, even if the Nazi executioners had robbed their victims of their names and reduced them to mere numbers — thinking thereby to eradicate their memory forever — in both the Jewish and Christian faiths, their memory is kept in eternity, and even we should profit from their memory.

What can be more profound to say about the indestructible dignity of the victims and about the abysmal crimes of the Shoah?

Thus, Benedict XVI's address at the Yad Vashem memorial was a great address. It was great because once more, the Pope did not have to use slogans or provocative words expected of him on matters he has already spoken about and often.

And it was great, above all, because he had something new to say, something fundamental and profound. The Pontiff gave a new starting point, a new dimension to reflection on the Shoah.

I know the contents of many of his other discourses. And the criticisms that I had read about the Pope's words also came to my mind right after the speech. They come in large part from the very same persons who had also once criticized John Paul II.

But whoever takes the effort to examine the writings of Benedict XVI, knows that long before he was elected to Peter's Chair, he had shown himself to be a friend of the Jewish people, that he was ever aware of their perennial honor as the people of the covenant chosen by God.

However, one should not give too much importance to such criticisms. The Israeli President, Shimon Peres, and various Jewish friends have publicly defended the Pope against unjust and even absurd criticisms.

In the Grand Rabbinate of Jerusalem, he was thanked expressly for having resolved clearly the misunderstandings that resulted from the unhappy question regarding the negationist Lefebvrian bishop.

The benevolence that the Pope met among many Jews was very evident when during the inter-religious encounter in Nazareth, a rabbi spontaneously began a song with the words, 'Shalom, Salaam, Peace,' which everyone joined in.

Even in this, it was clearly apparent that the numerous dialogues on the local level among Jews and Christians have had positive effects. They have been confirmed and encouraged with the Pope's visit, and of course, they will be pursued.

But now we must also talk about how to make these results better known to the public, particularly the spirit with which the dialogue has moved forward.

During his visit, the Pope also met with Muslims. And this, too, included some beautiful and encouraging meetings, especially in Jordan, where the King delivered a very important welcome address; and in Nazareth where tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities from years ago, have been resolved, thank God.

And since there are areas of irreconciliability, dialogue — and more importantly, a trilateral dialogue among Jews, Muslims and Christians — is difficult. But there is no alternative.

The Pope, as he underscored several times, was not bringing a political message but a spiritual one. He appealed to the heart, but also to the reason, of those who listened to him.

Whoever does not have a sense of the spiritual dimension and who does not open his heart would have considered his message of peace insignificant.

Yet, not only the believer, but even simple common sense, says that peace can be reached through political negotiations only if first, there is a will to peace and reconciliation. Likewise, the moral spiral of violence and counter-violence can only be broken spiritually.

Unfortunately, today, many no longer know that prayer is the most potent force that can transform the world. Above all in a situation as sad and, at the moment, apparently hopeless, as one feels when crossing the wall from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, prayer can give the certainty that walls are never eternal nor can they be. Hope is stronger.

This is the hope which Benedict XVI wished to and was able to reawaken and strengthen among Christians, among Jews, among Muslims. And for this, his was an important and highly significant trip.