During his apostolic visit to the United States in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed an interreligious gathering in Washington, D.C. that included representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities. The Holy Father praised what he called the United States’ “long history of cooperation” between religious faiths—something that has been championed by the Catholic community since the Second Vatican Council. As examples of such cooperation, he cited the interreligious prayer services at Thanksgiving and the joint charitable works that engage Catholic parishioners with members of other local communities. The pope also noted the “shared voice” on moral issues that Catholics seek to foster in the public square. It is Benedict’s hope that other nations could learn from the American experience that “a united society can indeed arise from a plurality of peoples provided that all recognize religious liberty as a basic civil right.”
When the pope travels to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories from May 8 to 15, he brings that message of hope to a region that has been torn by interreligious and political strife for more than 60 years. Can the Middle East become a community of nations in which the three great monotheistic religions, and their many subsets, live side by side in peace, and with respect for the human rights of all? American Catholics take it for granted that religion can be a force to advance the common good, to unite people of disparate beliefs around a set of set ethical principles that promote human rights and public virtue. Churches have frequently been the agents of positive societal change in our history. Can such interreligious cooperation be fostered by the pope whose own religious community in the Holy Land has dwindled in size in recent decades? As everyone acknowledges, the pope is a pastor to his own flock but a voice of conscience for the whole of humanity. To Jews and Muslims, as well as other Christians, Benedict XVI will urge a dialogue of cultures that focuses on the ethical values embedded in religious traditions, without which the political will to bring peace in the region can meet with success.
One of the core objectives of this papacy has been to advance the dialogue with the Jewish people, many of whom are our fellow citizens. Like Pope John Paul II, Benedict sees dialogue with our elder brothers and sisters in the faith as “internal” to the life of the Church. Judaism is internal because the revelation of God in Christ happens in the context of Israel’s covenant with God and for that reason, the ongoing covenantal life of the Jewish people with God remains a vitally important reference point for Catholic self-understanding. It is a distinct interreligious conversation which, since Vatican II’s landmark declaration Nostra aetate, has led to the healing of memories and an era of friendship.
If John Paul in his 2000 pilgrimage conveyed spiritual power by means of his gestures—such as the placing of the prayer for forgiveness in Jerusalem’s Western Wall—Benedict XVI will capture hearts though the clarity and profundity of his words. This German pope will undoubtedly invoke the Holocaust at the Yad Va Shem Memorial in words similar to those he spoke back in March: as a “warning for all against forgetfulness, denial, or reductionism, because violence committed against one single human being is violence against all.”In all that takes place in these days of pilgrimage, Pope Benedict XVI will invite the followers of all religions to “stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere.” Generous engagement in interreligious dialogue and “countless small acts of love, understanding and compassion,” the Pope said last year in Washington, make it possible for us all to be “instruments of peace for the whole human family.”