The announcement this week of the retirement of Pope Benedict – which has shocked the Catholic world and the international community – reawakened memories for me of his visit to Jerusalem in May of 2009. In advance of his historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there was a storm of criticism about him by many Jewish individuals and organizations saying that he was backsliding on issues concerning Jewish-Catholic Relations and Relations between the Holy See and Israel. Many pundits and Vatican-watchers at that time felt that he wasn’t doing enough, that he was giving in to Holocaust deniers, and that he did not express the same warmth to the Jewish community as the previous charismatic pope, Pope John Paul II.

At that time, I published an op-ed in which I was one of the few people in Israel who, instead of offering criticism of all the things he did not do, actually complimented and welcomed the Pope for coming on a pilgrimage to Israel and for maintaining good relations with the Jewish People.

Notwithstanding the bumps in the road in the Jewish and Israeli relationship with this pope, Pope Benedict decided to come to Israel at that time to strengthen his ties with the people and the state of Israel, as well as to reach out to local Christians in the Galilee and Bethlehem. He accomplished both goals on that important pilgrimage.

By combining diplomacy with pilgrimage, Pope Benedict clearly followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who made a historic visit here in March 2000, in which I was privileged to take part.

Since Dec. 30, 1993 – when the Fundamental Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed at the Israeli Foreign Ministry – there have been full diplomatic relations between these two sovereign entities. Not only has the Vatican recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people, but Israel has recognized the Vatican and entered into a relationship with its leadership. Undoubtedly these are among the most important diplomatic achievements Israel and the Vatican have achieved in recent times.

The 1993 agreement also outlined a series of issues, especially legal and financial ones, that are part of the revolution in relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church since the end of World War II. The preamble of this historic agreement states clearly that its framers were “aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”

In addition to reaffirming diplomatic relations, Pope Benedict came to the region with a message of peace and reconciliation.

At the end of his first day in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2009, he paid tribute to all those people and organizations in Israel and Palestine that actually engage in interreligious and intercultural dialogue for peace in our part of the world. I was honored to attend a special convocation and reception at which the pope acknowledged and encouraged people working in this field to continue and expand their work.

According to the papal representative in Israel at the time, Msgr. Antonio Franco, “This special event was held in Jerusalem because we strongly believe that there should be respect and cooperation among people of different religions in order to help reach peace in the region.”

Very few people know about the quiet achievements of those engaged in interreligious dialogue and action groups involving religious leaders, women, youth and educators in Israel and Palestine. They meet regularly, encountering the divine image in the Other and engaging in reconciliatory action projects to mitigate hatred and violence. They offer an alternative path to conflict, one of peaceful coexistence.

The very fact that the leader of the Catholic Church devoted a major audience to these people in his only day in Jerusalem on his pilgrimage in 2009 attested to the importance he places on the message of peace and the method of dialogue.

Indeed, one of Pope Benedict’s enduring legacies is his call for peace and reconciliation among the peoples of the different nationalities and religions who live in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. We who remember his pilgrimage to Israel as another important milestone in the strengthening of ties between the Holy See, the Jewish People and the State of Israel, should continue to respond positively to the pope’s message of peace and the imperative of dialogue between peoples and religions as a way to promote peaceful living in this land.

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