I pay a lot of respect to Joseph Ratzinger. True, his life, his path, his reflection are indeed so deeply rooted in our contemporary history. As a theologian, I had the pleasure to be published in the “Communio” review, the International Catholic Review of theology on some occasions. He was, at that time, responsible for the review in Rome. His is a great theologian and it would be totally ridiculous to ignore this aspect during his visit in Israel. The German nation has given the worse and the best to the Jews. They have developed very strong and profound theological studies about Judaism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hans Urs von Balthazar was another man of God, a God-seeker, just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Karl Barth crossed the way that could lead to some dialogue between Judaism and Christendom in its Western civilized part.
I celebrated the Divine Liturgy this morning as I do every week. It is mainly in Hebrew, but often a lot of Modern Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian some Arabic and Greek and any other language if required by the participants. Today was a special day. It was (it is over now) the 9th of May, i.e. the celebration of the end of World war II for the Soviet Army and the Eastern European countries. We are never really aware of the opinions that are so wildly passionate, especially in Israel or when reflections deal with the Jewish people. Firstly, the non-Jews try to compete to show how better they can understand the nature of the related issues, if any. Or, on the contrary, infuriated passion can lead others to stubbornly reject any kind of recognition of whatever Jewish existing system, if any!
This morning was special because as it often happens, I had Ukrainian faithful and thus we partly celebrated in Ukrainian. Because of the end of the war, there were also two prayers in Yiddish in memory of all the victims – Jewish and non-Jewish who perished during this terrible period that we define today as the “Shoah”.
Joseph Ratzinger’s mother dialect is Bayrisch, i.e. the same initial High German dialect of Bayern/Bavaria and Regensburg where Yiddish started its long and all-over-the-map-European and more journey through hell and beauty, humanity and compassion, humor and sense of life. I am convinced that Joseph Ratzinger is thus much more connected to our Israeli society than any other people would ever suspect. True, they would suspect, but not in a positive way.
I knew a very nice and amicable Jesuit, a German. He was 17 years old on May 9th but was caught by the Soviet Army on the 8th of May 1945; therefore, he was taken to jail and he spent many many years in Russia, in prison. He could also supposedly be accused to be a member of whatever open or underground Hitler-something…. In fact, just as Joseph Ratzinger, he was looking to becoming a priest, was against the Nazis but had to forcibly cope with some of the pending rules at that time. He paid a high price, became a very specialist of the Russian iconography and gently welcomed every person to teach them how to get to the real human face of the “icons” showing “divine situations”.
We are driven by scoops, not human or spiritual realities in the region of the world. It does not mean we don’t know how to manage. We are struggling for our life, our lives, our survival. And history has been a series of tragedies. We can criticize the journey to the Holy Land as it is developing for Pope Benedict XVI. As a pope, a man, a priest, it is normal for him to come and visit the places where the history of redemption is showing with much subtleties. We have time to consider why the Pope of Rome is paying a visit and not, e.g. Patriarch Bartholomaios of Constantinople. It is evident and normal for the new Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I, to come to Jerusalem. Late Aleksey III had come after his election.
Of course, the prestige of the Pope and Rome is so important that things are special.
But we should also consider some other aspects of Germany in Israel. Prof. Gershom Scholem, lining with Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, had initiated the department of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a typical German-born thinker and he paved the way to many meaningful insights that he and others developed in the country. He reflected upon many philosophical matters that do meet with the spiritual questioning of cardinal Ratzinger. Gerschom Scholem had also the nerve to oblige the young Jewish scholar David Flusser to teach Christianity at the Hebrew University, which was a yoke for the new immigrant from Prague, a German speking Jew that recently had converted to Jewish Orthodoxy! David Flusser accepted and dedicated his life to a task that not obvious in his days, neither for himself nor for the nascent Israeli society. He never taught in Hebrew – with a few exceptions – and his books were only recently translated into Hebrew and published.
On the other hand, this means that Joseph Ratzinger got along his own path with the way the Israeli secular society envisions faith and philosophy according to more scientific prospect. I thought of that during the morning celebration. It is possible to consider that the Ukrainians and the Jews are only linked by the horrible past of the pogroms, assassination, murders perpetrated by the Ukrainians against the Jews. No, there are indeed a lot of positive aspects and Israeli society does show, at the present, how Jews and non-Jews who for a great part come from the Ukraine or were deported from there, can get along peacefully beyond all the tragedies of history.
Indeed, it depends on how we consider history and anticipate the future. There are many reasons to think that the visit is also a huge combat between different parties for poer and taking the spiritual lead, in any, in the region. Islam develops everywhere in Europe; it could be stopped in Vienna and the Ottoman empire could not capture some areas. Today, it is simply a matter of internet, migration, human flow from various countries to other nations and States and it is a fact that Europe is getting “Muslim”. It is true that the references of our history are mixed with the failures and successes of Islam vs. Christendom, some periods of co-existence with Judaism as in Spain (Cordoba).
Let’s be aware of the very confrontation that exists at the present between the re-emerging Eastern Orthodox Churches and the frontiers they have to put in order to get shielded from some new crusaders who may not understand the still shaking shock that affects the Oriental Churches in Greece, East Europe and Jerusalem, the whole of the Near and Middle East.
Again, it would be ridiculous and “childish”and even “churlish” to pretend that the visit does not carry together with a real pilgrimage, the sophisticated intermingled hardships that every denomination, nation and culture must face right now, in particular in the State of Israel. Still, we welcomed so many young German people in the two past decades, some of them made their home here in the country. It is a huge sign of “living and silent reconciliation”. The German politicians could speak in German for the first time at the Knesset, with limited and controlled protest. Today, some Israelis would appeal to the Supreme Court against the Pope for “stolen belongings”. We need here to utter such things, but would ever thought that the Vatican flag would hang in the streets of so many survivors?
There were a lot of tourists and pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem this afternoon of May 9th. Inside of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Resurrection, there were crowds of Russians, young and older, poor or rather wealthy, flooding like swarms and eager to discover the Holy Land. As I was welcoming the Ukrainian faithful this morning and seeing so many of them in the Old City, I could not help but think of late Metropolitan Andrii Sheptytzky, of Lvov (Lviv, Lemberg) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. A giant of the faith, beyond all norms as stated Prof. Gutmann (previously in charge of YAd VaShem). He has saved so many Jews, written a famous metter “Thou shalt not kill – Nie Ubyi” (1942 directly linked to the fate of the Jews in the concentration camps). He read, spoke Hebrew and Yiddish and had journeyed to the Holy Land with a large group of Ukrainian believers in 1916; He allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to get the permission to enter Europe (France), thus allowing her to grow during the period of the communists. He is still not canonized by the Catholic Church and not recognized as a “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad VaShem.
I often suggest to the faithful to read the books written by Metropolitan Sheptytzky, in particular his “Trudy – Works”. He spoke the language of his time, and had the nerve, the courage to face the problems. And these were very similar to those we have to encounter insode of the present-day Israeli (and Palestinian) society. The real problem is that we cannot trust too much for the moment. There are many people who are “too much”. They are not left aside. They do not comply with the standards defined by the West European culture or ways of thinking.
Pope Benedict XVI called today to open the gates to mixing the different segments of civilization. There is one point that does not appear. Until last world war, we had been living according to a pattern of civilization that was and is still rooted in Sumer, then between Mesopotamia and Egypt, Eretz Canaan and Israel. In the present, the world exploded, grew much wider and 2000 civilization systems are questioned about the way they can be released from the bonds inherited from the past. Newness obliges us to conceive new structures, new waves, new developments and we may not be ready t o welcome such a spiritual and human “abandonment” to newness. What is true in the West is not real in the East and vice versa. It is stunning with regards ot the media and information that simply gossip about non-reliable facts or data. Everything can be questioned by any “alien” reflection system.
I came back to the Jerusalem Patriarchate at the end of the day. I have no television and usually listen to the radio. At the entrance, the gate-keepers were looking at the Jordanian program. It was broadcasting the Vesper service, live from Amman, in the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church of Saint George. I was glad to recognize Patriarch Gregorios III (Lutfi Laham, the former Greek Catholic archbishop in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine). A great man of faith, who developed a lot of social and medical services and is very concerned by the social, educational development of the Arab Christians. He continues to write many very insightful articles about the subject.
The gate-keepers who are Arabs were singing along with the choir and the “Melkite patriarch”. Indeed, the Arabs are beyond any splits that affected the Church of Jerusalem. They feel at home, simply at home. I recently explained that to a tv program. But there was more. Gregorios III was leading the Service. You could feel he was managing the celebration. The Pope was sitting, frail, a bit shy and it was evident that he was not used to such Oriental (Byzantine) services. In the public, all sorts of bishops, patriarchs were reading the text in Arabic and the atmosphere was typically local, i.e. “bon enfant”. It was not aloof, stiff or blasé. Then, something happened, oh a simple thing at the end of the service. The Greek Catholics (as the Greek Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox) use to sing “Eis polla eti – many years wishes!” in Greek. This is usual in the region and can be sung either in Russian, Romanian or other tongues. It consist of mentioning the name and the titles of the “patriarch or head of the Church”. The concerned “heads of Church” know of course that they have to hold the two candelabra (the first with 2 candles: human and divine nature of Christ) and the other with 3 candles (Father, Son and Holy Trinity, among other explanations) and they cross the two candelabra in order t omake a sign of blessing toward the faithful.
Benedict XVI was left with the two candelabra, holding them with timidity while his servers were also very surprised. There is definitely nothing pathetic in such a behavior. He was certainly tired, was caring for his speeches. Still, rituals and the way we serve – Liturgy is the action/work of the whole body of the faithful and it is a living act and therefore, in such a circumstance, it also showed the existing distance that does remind us of the internal split between East and West in the Catholic and Orthodox Church born in Jerusalem.
The miracle is that the Light continues to be given with faith and much desire to be more authentic.
av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)
May 10/April 27, 2009 – 31 le’Omer – 16 deIyyar 5769 – ל”א לעומר – ט”ז דאייר תשס”ט