Magazine article Commonweal

A Pilgrim's Progress

Magazine article Commonweal

A Pilgrim's Progress

Article excerpt

A biblical flood of ink has been spilled trying to assess the significance of John Paul II's recent actions. During Mass on the first Sunday of Lent, the pope made an unprecedented apology for the historical sins committed by Catholics. He asked God's forgiveness for sins against the unity of Christianity, against women, against the people of Israel, and for the use of violence in the "service of truth," by which he meant the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of the New World. The sinners implicated included those who acted in the church's name. Nine days later, John Paul began a dramatic weeklong pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Deftly balancing the religious and political ramifications of his visit, he impressed Israelis and Palestinians with the sincerity of his good will, while giving hope and affirmation to those in the occupied territories by voicing support for a Palestinian homeland. For Catholics, the pope's pilgrimage emphasized again the moral and religious importance John Paul places on reconciliation with Jews, whose covenant with God abides. Taking that work of reconciliation to the Holy Land and to the reconstituted nation of Israel obviously had profound meaning for John Paul. But above all, the pope went to where the story of the New Testament unfolds so that his every action could be placed in the context of his faith that "God's interventions...culminate in the mysteries of the Incarnation, and the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ."

For the most part, both the pope's effort to direct the church's attention to the failures of the past, and his much anticipated Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land, were well received. Some complained that he failed explicitly to criticize Pius XII's conduct during the Holocaust or to apologize to Muslims for the Crusades. Others found it hard to make much sense of the pope's religious vision at all. The New York Times editorial page, for example, achieved an almost parodic effect by complaining that the papal apology should have extended to the church's opposition to abortion, contraception, the ordination of women, and homosexuality. Divorce and shopping on Sunday were inexplicably left off this wish list.

As the trip to Israel reminded us, the nearly eighty-year-old pontiff can still enthrall an audience. In private, he continues to win over all comers with his personal sanctity and human warmth. Although hobbled by ill health, John Paul is determined to show both the church and the world what it means to live the gospel. Nothing demonstrated that fact more poignantly that the pope's humble and obviously heartfelt expressions of grief at Yad Vashem, the stark Israeli memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. …

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