Many of Pope Benedict’s words show his courage: he is not afraid to speak uncomfortable truths to our troubled world.
But now his actions as well are showing his profound courage.
Despite the worries of some of his top Vatican advisors, fearful that his upcoming trip to Lebanon could expose him to physical danger, Pope Benedict, 85, has decided to hold firm and carry out his long-planned September 14-16 visit to Lebanon in order to preach a message of peace in a region torn by war.
He will leave Rome tomorrow, and return Sunday. We should pray for his safety.
Why could the Pope be in danger?
Because a civil war is blazing in nearby Syria, and because simmering anti-American and anti-Western tensions have just recently erupted into violence in many cities of the the Middle East.
The violence has erupted, it appears, due to the appearance on the internet of a shoddily-made film Innocence of Muslims.
The film, which I have just viewed myself, mocks the Prophet Mohammed as an impostor and womanizer, depicting him in a number of scenes seemingly designed with only one purpose, to outrage and infuriate devout Muslims, since there is no artistic merit to this film whatsoever that I can discern. (Here is a link to the Youtube trailer of the film, which has been seen by about 1.5 million people in the past few hours; if you click on it, be prepared to be offended, even — or perhaps I should say especially — if you are a Christian: http://www.youtube.com
Note: There are many mysteries about this odd and regrettable film: (1) It is not clear if there even is a complete version of the work, though it reportedly was shown once, in a small studio in Hollywood, California; (2) the 16-minute film trailer was apparently uploaded to the internet in July, so it is not clear why it has “gone viral” only since September 11, two days ago (the 11th anniversary of 9/11, 2001); (3) the motivations of the film’s writer and producer, a man named Sam Bacile (if that is his real name), evidently an American, are unclear; and (4) reportedly, all of the 80 actors and technicians who participated in the making of the film are said to have signed a statement claiming they were deceived, tricked, into working on a project they thought was something different than what it turned out to be. And those are only a few of the mysteries…
The violence over this film culminated yesterday in the murder in Benghazi, Libya, of the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, a career US diplomat who was an expert on the Middle East and, reportedly, a lover of Arabic and Islamic culture. The violence also included large protests at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
Father Federico Lombardi, S.J, director of the Vatican Press Office and the Pope’s spokesman, has told journalists “there was never any question about the (Pope’s) visit going ahead” because of Benedict’s unswerving determination to visit the region to speak a message of peace.
Still, for the Pope not to hesitate under these circumstances, is a sign, to my mind, of his bravery. He will not be moved, even by riots and the threat of violence.
Lebanon is, for the Catholic Church the “pearl” of the Middle East. Ancient Christian communities have lived for almost 2,000 years in Lebanon — indeed, for the first years of the Church — and, since the 600s, when Islam arrived, in general if sometimes guarded harmony with Muslims. The Church has always hoped that this “model” of peaceful co-existence might survive, and spread more widely in the region.
Following the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, the Holy See issued a statement outlining its essential position: first, respect for the beliefs and symbols of each faith as the basis for a peaceful co-existence; and, second, a clear condemnation of violence. The statement was translated into Arabic so that it could be understood across the Middle East.
Benedict is risking his own health and life to make this trip. He is doing so because he believes Lebanon is that important… because he believes peace in the Middle East is that important. His courage is for a purpose: to place himself even “in harm’s way” in order to appeal to “sweet reason” in the conduct of human affairs, over against provocation and infuriated reactions, so that the “spiral of violence” does not spread and drag into its shadow many innocent men, women and children, and escalate into a regional or even global war.
Benedict, in doing this, is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who, in one of the key addresses of his pontificate, in Casablanca, Morocco on August 19, 1985, 27 years ago, speaking to a stadium filled with 80,000 young Muslims, appealed to the young Muslims to be open to the message of Christ, and by implication, to all Christians, that they preach that precious message, tirelessly, without ever imposing it violently, always with profound respect and with Christian love.
Here is a key excerpt from that address of John Paul:
“Man is a spiritual being. We, believers, know that we do not live in a closed world. We believe in God. We are worshipers of God. We are seekers of God…
“Loyalty demands also that we should recognize and respect our differences. Obviously the most fundamental is the view that we hold on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. You know that, for the Christians, this Jesus causes them to enter into an intimate knowledge of the mystery of God and into a filial communion by his gifts, so that they recognize him and proclaim him Lord and Saviour.
“Those are important differences, which we can accept with humility and respect, in mutual tolerance; there is a mystery there on which, I am certain, God will one day enlighten us.
“Christians and Muslims, in general we have badly understood each other, and sometimes, in the past, we have opposed and even exhausted each other in polemics and in wars.
“I believe that, today, God invites us to change our old practices. We must respect each other, and also we must stimulate each other in good works on the path of God.
“With me, you know what is the reward of spiritual values. Ideologies and slogans cannot satisfy you nor can they solve the problems of your life. Only the spiritual and moral values can do it, and they have God as their fundament.
“Dear young people, I wish that you may be able to help in thus building a world where God may have first place in order to aid and to save mankind. On this path, you are assured of the esteem and the collaboration of your Catholic brothers and sisters whom I represent among you this evening.”
One of the promoters of Innocence of Muslims is said to be an American Protestant minister, Pastor Terry Jones, who in the past burned a copy of the Koran. Jones has announced he wants to show the trailer in his church in Gainesville, Florida. I think he should reconsider, and not show this piece of truly shlocky film-making, unless to hold it up to scorn, as a work of negative value, which all Christian believers will condemn, not praise, because it does nothing to build up the Lord’s kingdom in this fallen world.