Labor Paeans April 2000 By Ira
The Pope's Visit to the Middle East-and Me Jerusalem April 1,2000.
So much has been written about Pope John Paul II's visit to Palestine,
Israel and Jordan. It was deeply moving to hear his words in support of
justice for the Palestinians, contrition (if indirect) for lack of opposition
of many Catholics, as individuals, to the Holocaust, and so much more.
One thing that was not moving was Jerusalem traffic, stalled in certain
areas so that the Pope, popemobile and entourage could travel unsnarled.
I am not unaware of the Church's role concerning Liberation Theology, particularly,
but not limited to, Brazil and Nicaragua (allowing right-wing UNO priests
to function politically while forbidding Liberation Theology priests to
do the same); his stands on personal-status doctrine: on women, on abortion,
etc. But I also know about his opposition to unbridled capitalism, and
his anti-poverty views.
It took a long time, and much soul-searching, before I was able to
attempt to objectively assess this pope, or any pope. My journey, and it
was a journey, from a rocky terrain of bitterness toward and resentment
of the Catholic Church, to a perch of cautious coexistence and friendship,
may be instructive. I grew up hating Christians in general and Catholics
in particular. Discovering that so many Catholics and other Christians
at the time were silent while 6 million of my people, the Jewish people,
were incinerated by the Nazis was just too much to bear. When I learned
the pope at the time, Pius XII, had blessed the Spanish butcher, Francisco
Franco, and the Portuguese despot, Antonio Salazar, my heart filled with
fury and bitterness. Then I read about the Crusades and the Inquisition-and
I became consumed with hate.
Dick Kelly is a Chicago-born white Irish Catholic who was a civil
rights coworker of mine in a Mississippi town in the 1960's. He told me,
if memory serves, that the parish priest in this town was afraid to give
him holy communion along with the other parishioners because of Dick's
civil rights involvement. Dick literally had to meet the priest at midnight,
and enter the church from the rear. This was a time of strict racial segregation
in Mississippi, and most of the local Catholics were racists just like
most other white people.
But the civil rights movement was all about freedom and love and
sisterhood and brotherhood. It was about racial justice and sacrifice and
selflessness and the building of a new world. I had by then read about
the religious and racial unity of all kinds of people who wanted to fight
greed and prejudice, and build a new social and economic order. I met a
number of these good people. This struggle for civil rights in the South
was church centered and egalitarian minded, the progressive thrust of the
Black Baptist and Methodist experience. I also knew courageous and prayerful
Protestant ministers in the Delta Ministry of the National Council of Churches,
mostly white. So I began to rethink my biases.
In the late 1960's I had the privilege of meeting the Catholic priests
Dan and Phil Berrigan and Bob Cunane, the nuns and priests of the Catonsville
Nine. They had stolen a U.S. Army Green Beret handbook, learned how to
make napalm, and used it to destroy military draft records in Catonsville,
Maryland-to protest U.S. soldiers being drafted to kill or be killed in
I read about Father Camilio Torres, the South American priest at
a wealthy girls school in Colombia who became a revolutionary (all his
works were in the library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
in Louisville. Are they still there?). I came to distinguish between reactionary
Catholics and Angelo Roncalli, the Catholic priest later to become Pope
John XXIII, who helped save tens of thousands of Jews during World War
Meeting Dorothy Day and the caring people of the Catholic Worker
movement, forty years ago, humbled me. I still remember their homeless
shelter in New York City.
In the 1980's I served as Commissioner and Vice Chairperson of the
Louisville and Jefferson County Human Relations Commission. The gay and
lesbian community asked me if I would introduce a commission resolution
to give homosexuals legal protection against discrimination. But by then
I was in disfavor with city and county officials because I had vigorously
protested the destruction of civil rights measures (affirmative action),
so I asked another commissioner, Father Tim Hogan, to introduce the resolution.
This principled Catholic priest did so without hesitation.
Before I left for the Middle East, in the Fall of 1999, I accompanied
my dear Catholic friend Deedee Stokes to a dinner organized by CNEWA (Catholic
Near East Welfare Association) in New York. I met many dedicated Catholics
at this gathering, and many more in the Latin Patriarchate here in the
It was back in the late 1960's that my narrow view, painting all
Catholics with one brush stroke, did a turnaround. I must confess (now
that's an interesting choice of a word!) that there is still much about
the Catholic Church that disturbs me greatly, and not just their seeming
lack of understanding about why Jews still remember their forced conversions
in years past, even when we hear about voluntary conversions today. But
I would like to think that I can rise above my parochial predispositions
to embrace the catholic spirit that John Paul II personifies when he speaks
to the just struggle of my Palestinian cousins.
John Paul II's visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the 6 million
Jews who perished in the Holocaust, was gripping and poignant. I would
have wanted the pope to have been specific about the Palestinian right
of return, and the Church's institutional role during the Hitler period.
But maybe that was hoping for too much at this stage of history.
At the Western ("Wailing") Wall the pope said, "God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations.
We are deeply saddened by 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."
All of us have prejudice and ignorance to overcome. John Paul II has taken
an important step in moving us in a good direction. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessings-Christian, Moslem and Jewish-for Pope John Paul II and his quest
for Middle East peace.