Reactions to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel were surprisingly similar to reactions to the concert by the British pop band Depeche Mode earlier this week.
Both the pope and Depeche Mode aroused high expectations. And both left behind many disappointed spectators, along with at least as many satisfied ones. In both cases, the disappointment stemmed from misunderstanding the limits of what the guests could do.
Benedict's visit was very political, both because he is a very political pope and because the visit occurred so soon after the war in Gaza. Against this backdrop, and with liturgy serving as mere filler between political statements, his speeches turned into a competition between Israelis and Palestinians over recognition of their misery and the justness of their causes.
The Palestinians won the competition, thanks to the pope's open support for a two-state solution, his condemnation of the West Bank barrier and his repeated references to their plight. They too expected more, but they received quite a bit.
They also won the design competition. The dozens of Israeli flags at the site of Benedict's mass in Jerusalem's Gethsemane Church were meant to project ownership and mastery, but they ended up reflecting insecurity. The mass in Bethlehem featured no Palestinian flags. Their mastery was self-evident. So was the fact that the pope is a Christian, and his main goal in visiting Israel was to unify his dwindling flock in the Holy Land, not to please the Israelis.
Moreover, this particular pope has a very traditional perception of his role. From the moment he was elected to the post, he distanced himself from his former identity and internalized what he had become. This is the explanation offered by German Catholics for the meagerness of the pope's speech at Yad Vashem: As far as he is concerned, he is no longer a German. He is the pope.
Nonetheless, what he omitted from his speech at the Holocaust remembrance site embarrassed prominent Church officials in Germany, as well as the German media - who were happy to declare "we are the pope" when he was elected to the post. Those who know the pope say that everything he says is carefully thought out in advance. The same goes for what he does not say.
About two weeks before Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited Israel in 2000, he offered a special prayer in which he begged forgiveness from all those the Church had maltreated throughout its history. Joseph Alois Ratzinger - now known as Benedict XVI - was reportedly opposed to that move.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now