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Catholics, Jews and the Papal Pilgrimage

Msgr. Robert L. Stern and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, Director, Department of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, reflect on Pope John Paul II’s recent pilgrimage and its impact on Catholic-Jewish relations.

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Msgr. Stern: When King Abdullah II of Jordan welcomed John Paul II at the beginning of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I thought the King’s remarks captured the essence of the trip. The King greeted the Pope as a holy man, adding, “We welcome you as a symbol of all that is pure and noble in this life…[you] remind us…of the absolute need for forgiveness of one’s enemies.” The King then evoked the blessing of God in the words of the Qur’an.

The Pope’s journey to the Holy Land was truly a pilgrimage, which in the best sense of the word is a prayerful journey of faith and includes reflection and prayer about the things that happened there.

Rabbi Klenicki: For the Jewish community, and especially the Israeli people, the trip had special significance: it contributed much by enhancing and giving new dimensions to the Catholic-Jewish relationship. It was more than a trip – it was a pilgrimage to the very sources of Judaism and Christianity.

Msgr. Stern: Although media commentators and some speakers over the course of the pilgrimage tended to concentrate on the trip’s political significance, above all it was a spiritual experience. It also included, how-ever, some symbolic visits to places that touched the deepest hurts of the people of the Holy Land, the Palestinians and the Jews.

The purpose of touching the grief of both peoples was, also in the words of King Abdullah, to convey a message of forgiveness and mutual understanding.

Rabbi Klenicki: I must confess that I’m somewhat disturbed by your constant references to the Holy Land. Are you speaking of the State of Israel or other political entities in the area? There has been a trend among some Christians or Christian denominations who are critical of the State of Israel to refer to Israel and the whole area as the “Holy Land,” which deeply hurts our feelings.

Msgr. Stern: I understand and it’s regrettable if it’s perceived that way. You’re right – there are some people who deliberately say “Holy Land” to avoid saying “State of Israel.” On the other hand, “Holy Land” is a traditional Christian parlance about that part of the world that goes back for many, many centuries. The Pope journeyed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel and to the autonomous Palestinian territories, but I would not say that he made a pilgrimage to these political entities. The Pope’s pilgrimage was to a land sanctified by the great events of the past and by the action of God. Perhaps it’s better to say he was on pilgrimage to the holy places.

Rabbi Klenicki: There were several moving moments during the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II. One of them was his visit and words at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. His presence there, his obvious emotional state and his words brought to all of us, and especially to those who suffered in the Holocaust, a sense of solidarity as well as a healing of the heart.

Msgr. Stern: The moment at Yad Vashem was deeply moving, but there the Pope stood as a Christian expressing his compassion and anguish at what happened to Jews. For me, the more important symbolic moment was the Pope at the Western Wall.

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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Msgr. Stern Pope John Paul II Jewish-Catholic relations