Pope Benedict XVI had his work cut out for him when he arrived in the Holy Land. His childhood Hitler Youth membership and his Wehrmacht service during World War II have sowed deep discomfort in a country where the Holocaust still feels like recent memory. Disappointment over his reinstatement of Bishop Richard Williamson, an unabashed Shoah denier, further contributed to the close scrutiny to which his words, particularly at Yad Vashem, have been subjected.
Was Israelis’ disappointment in the Pope’s remarks here inevitable? Perhaps. But the Vatican’s defense of Benedict XVI, saying that “he can’t mention everything every time he speaks,” illustrated how completely the Holy See misunderstood what Israelis had hoped to hear.
The Pope’s mistake was that he assumed the role of diplomat rather than religious leader. There was nothing technically wrong with what he said at Yad Vashem. But in choosing such carefully measured, tepid language, he said nothing that an ordinary diplomat could not have uttered. We heard none of the passion, the fury or the shattered heart that is the hallmark of genuine religious courage and leadership.
Atop Mount Scopus, Pope Benedict literally gazed upon the hilltops that Amos walked when he begged that “justice flow like a mighty river” and that Jesus called home when he demanded a renewed moral order. With anguished self-reflective contrition (he is German, after all), or with a courageous call that Palestinians should have a State but must also publicly proclaim that Jews need a home to call their own, too, the Pope could have assumed the mantle of the man of God in the tradition of those who have come here before him.
Sadly, he failed to do that. Therefore, when he departs, he will leave behind little more than a sense of what might have been.