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Labor Paeans April 2000 | Poem

Labor Paeans April 2000 By IraGrupper

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 ofjustice for the Palestinians, contrition (if indirect) for lack of oppositionof many Catholics, as individuals, to the Holocaust, and so much more.One thing that was not moving was Jerusalem traffic, stalled in certainareas 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 prieststo function politically while forbidding Liberation Theology priests todo the same); his stands on personal-status doctrine: on women, on abortion,etc. But I also know about his opposition to unbridled capitalism, andhis anti-poverty views. 

It took a long time, and much soul-searching, before I was able toattempt to objectively assess this pope, or any pope. My journey, and itwas a journey, from a rocky terrain of bitterness toward and resentmentof the Catholic Church, to a perch of cautious coexistence and friendship,may be instructive. I grew up hating Christians in general and Catholicsin particular. Discovering that so many Catholics and other Christiansat 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 learnedthe pope at the time, Pius XII, had blessed the Spanish butcher, FranciscoFranco, and the Portuguese despot, Antonio Salazar, my heart filled withfury and bitterness. Then I read about the Crusades and the Inquisition-andI became consumed with hate. 

Dick Kelly is a Chicago-born white Irish Catholic who was a civilrights 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 givehim holy communion along with the other parishioners because of Dick'scivil 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 segregationin Mississippi, and most of the local Catholics were racists just likemost other white people. 

But the civil rights movement was all about freedom and love andsisterhood and brotherhood. It was about racial justice and sacrifice andselflessness and the building of a new world. I had by then read aboutthe religious and racial unity of all kinds of people who wanted to fightgreed and prejudice, and build a new social and economic order. I met anumber of these good people. This struggle for civil rights in the Southwas church centered and egalitarian minded, the progressive thrust of theBlack Baptist and Methodist experience. I also knew courageous and prayerfulProtestant 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 priestsDan and Phil Berrigan and Bob Cunane, the nuns and priests of the CatonsvilleNine. They had stolen a U.S. Army Green Beret handbook, learned how tomake napalm, and used it to destroy military draft records in Catonsville,Maryland-to protest U.S. soldiers being drafted to kill or be killed inViet Nam. 

I read about Father Camilio Torres, the South American priest ata wealthy girls school in Colombia who became a revolutionary (all hisworks were in the library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminaryin Louisville. Are they still there?). I came to distinguish between reactionaryCatholics and Angelo Roncalli, the Catholic priest later to become PopeJohn XXIII, who helped save tens of thousands of Jews during World WarII. 

Meeting Dorothy Day and the caring people of the Catholic Workermovement, forty years ago, humbled me. I still remember their homelessshelter in New York City. 

In the 1980's I served as Commissioner and Vice Chairperson of theLouisville and Jefferson County Human Relations Commission. The gay andlesbian community asked me if I would introduce a commission resolutionto give homosexuals legal protection against discrimination. But by thenI was in disfavor with city and county officials because I had vigorouslyprotested 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 accompaniedmy dear Catholic friend Deedee Stokes to a dinner organized by CNEWA (CatholicNear East Welfare Association) in New York. I met many dedicated Catholicsat this gathering, and many more in the Latin Patriarchate here in theMiddle East.

It was back in the late 1960's that my narrow view, painting allCatholics with one brush stroke, did a turnaround. I must confess (nowthat's an interesting choice of a word!) that there is still much aboutthe Catholic Church that disturbs me greatly, and not just their seeminglack of understanding about why Jews still remember their forced conversionsin years past, even when we hear about voluntary conversions today. ButI would like to think that I can rise above my parochial predispositionsto embrace the catholic spirit that John Paul II personifies when he speaksto the just struggle of my Palestinian cousins. 

John Paul II's visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the 6 millionJews who perished in the Holocaust, was gripping and poignant. I wouldhave wanted the pope to have been specific about the Palestinian rightof 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 causedthese children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wishto commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."All of us have prejudice and ignorance to overcome. John Paul II has takenan 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 questfor Middle East peace.

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