Poor Pope Benedict XVI. Wherever he goes he is plagued by the larger-than-life reputation of Pope John Paul II whose legacy keeps growing, perhaps nowhere more so than on the current visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. On Day One of the trip, Benedict visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem where by all accounts he gave a moving speech but, unlike his predecessor, failed to mention Germany or the Nazis. The Israeli press pounced, saying that Benedict had a special obligation to do so as a German himself. The New York Times noted:
By contrast, in his visit to Yad Vashem in 2000, John Paul said: "My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the war. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived."
The Washington Post, however, gave the reader an opportunity to compare Benedict with Benedict.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi defended Benedict, saying the pope had mentioned his German roots previously, specifically when visiting a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and at the Auschwitz death camp the following year.
"He can't mention everything every time he speaks," Lombardi told reporters in Jerusalem.
I looked up that 2005 talk and found that, indeed, Benedict does nail the German and Nazi issue, but he comes up short on Christian responsibility for the Shoah. Here is some of what he said according to the Catholic News Agency:
The history of relations between the Jewish and Christian communities has been complex and often painful... And in the twentieth century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.
In this statement, the Pope lays the blame for the Shoah on "an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism" and thereby seems to absolve the church of any responsibility. It was another example of Benedict's blind spot about the Jews, as David Van Biema writes this week in Time magazine in an essay titled, "Pope Benedict on the Question of Judaism":
He seems simply to have forgotten Jewish concerns on a range of decisions regarding liturgy, sainthood and historical interpretation.
John Paul had a much better handle on the what Jews needed to hear. This can best be illustrated by one final JPII/Benedict comparison. One of the rituals associated with visiting the Western Wall is to leave a prayer on a little slip of paper and place it in the wall. Can you guess which one was written by John Paul in 2000 and which one was written by Benedict in 2009?
"God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family; stir the hearts of all who call upon your name, to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion."
''God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."