A Social Miracle -- and Some Cheap Shots

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land this May should be a source of amazement to us all. People of good will from every side have expressed their admiration for the pope on the occasion of this remarkable journey. Although you might not have known it if you depended entirely on the secular media for your news about this trip, history was made, hope for peace was instilled, and blessings were brought to a land that sorely needed them. Only the most intransigent critics could deny this -- which, of course, they did.

Who could be anything but astonished and gratified to learn of the pope's amazing meeting at Nazareth in the auditorium of the Basilica of the Annunciation? Benedict brought together the Prime Minister of Israel, representatives of the Muslim, Druze, and Jewish communities, as well as Christians of various denominations -- no easy feat in the Middle East -- and spoke to them of the desperate need to ''safeguard children from fanaticism'' and his desire that they become ''builders of a better world.'' The pope said to those who attended this meeting: ''Representing different religious traditions, you share a desire to contribute to the betterment of society and thus testify to the religious and spiritual values that help sustain public life. I assure you that the Catholic Church is committed to join in this noble undertaking.''

If you have an opportunity to read the issue of L'Osservatore Romano published on May 20 of this year, you will observe a social and political miracle before your eyes, a remarkable spiritual event in the 21st century: a photo of a smiling Pope Benedict and some of the other members of the meeting warmly holding hands. You may say that the importance of such an event is largely symbolic, and this is true. But the Middle East is in desperate need of such symbols of peace coming from their religious and political leaders. We should not forget, as we think about this remarkable journey, that the risk inherent in the pope's visit was hardly symbolic. Benedict XVI obviously knew he was endangering his life during every moment of his visit, yet we saw no fear in his eyes and we saw him take no extraordinary precautions. Fanatics on all sides would have loved to kill the messenger of peace and the leader of the Catholic Church. I am a realist, and I feared every day that the pope might come to some harm. We worried during the pope's trip to Turkey some time ago, but this trip must surely have been the most uncertain and dangerous moment of his papacy, and it was a moment he chose, one he could have easily avoided. God bless him and keep him.

The peanut gallery -- a New York expression that refers to those who sit in the cheap seats of a theatre, throwing their empty nutshells and popcorn at those on the stage below -- was, as always, predictable. Some of the dying newspapers -- especially TheNew YorkTimes -- managed to hit a new low (an achievement of sorts) in their criticism and complaints, largely ignoring the significance of the pope's visit, underplaying his peacemaking attempts, focusing on anything that could be construed as negative. Of course they took their usual cheap shots, including making much too much of his using a golf cart to get to the place where Jesus was baptized by St. John the Baptist. As if this were not silly enough, they then immediately criticized him for getting out of the cart to meet people. Make up your mind! This wasn't the most important event of the trip by any means, but they decided to focus on it because it enabled them to make another cheap shot. It shouldn't surprise anyone that they hardly mentioned that the pope had put his own life in danger at every turn to bring a magnificent message of peace to one of the most disturbed and violence-plagued parts of the world, a message that many considered a unique source of great hope.

I must say that those who read L'Osservatore Romano about the papal trip and then the remarks of some of the secular papers on the same things will see more than a discrepancy. They will see what can only be called ill will against the pope and the Catholic Church. That is hardly news, of course, in fact it's old hat, but we ought to be very clear in telling others that many in the mass media are operating with a bias against the Church and against religion in general, a bias so strong that I don't hesitate to call it, in some cases, a profound prejudice. TP