Friday, May 29, 2009

5-17-2009: 6th Easter (B)

Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26,34-35,44-48/Psalm 98/1 John 4:7-10/John 15:9-17
One of last year’s worth-see movies was The Reader which, among other themes, attempted to address the extraordinarily awkward relationship between war-time and post-war generations of Germans and the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. That same theme played out this past week in the person of Pope Benedict XVI as he made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The media in Israel protested the pope’s remarks at Yad Vashem (the Shrine to Martyrs of the Holocaust) as “insufficient.” They said they were waiting to hear more of his personal story, a less ambiguous denunciation of the Nazis and, by extension, the German people, for their participation, willing and unwilling, in the horrors of the Holocaust. What made matters worse was the seeming ignorance on the part of the pope’s own PR person who vehemently denied the fact that the pope had been a member of the Hitler Youth. One wonders how that well-publicized fact (admitted by the pope himself) could have escaped the purview of the priest in charge of publicity. Another glaring mistake and lack of preparation on the part of the papal staff.

That being said, how one responds to victims and victimization is one of life’s great challenges. Are contemporary white-Americans, for example, expected to feel guilt for the horrors of American slavery or the near-decimation of the American Indian? How often must American bishops plead their mea culpas and beat their breast for the recent sexual abuse scandal? Is Benedict XVI, as Joseph Ratzinger, culpable for World War II or the Holocaust – even if he were conscripted into the Hitler Youth and the German army? However we answer those questions, we want also to know if the pope feels individual responsibility because of his personal past? Benedict doesn’t seem the type who eagerly reveals his personal feelings on the world stage (he is German after all), but that’s precisely what people – especially those who consider themselves victims – want to hear. It seems we human beings have a need to hear acknowledgement of personal guilt for the hurt we have endured, not from the perpetrators themselves (we want them punished) but from those who have a tangential association with the crime.

In The Reader Ralph Fiennes’ character discovers that the older woman he had an affair with when he was a teenager was, in fact, a Nazi guard responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. He finds himself, years later, in that strange no man’s land between victim and oppressor. He tries to negotiate a bargain – for his sake more than either the woman or the survivor. It is an impossible position to find oneself; there can be no easy out; in fact, no satisfying resolution is possible. In the end you must accept the burden of history even if you, personally, had nothing to do with the causes of the tragedy.

The pope seems to be in this position: not because he is Benedict XVI -- but because he is Joseph Ratzinger. Some will say he handled it appropriately; others will condemn him for making a difficult situation worse. My take is that he has missed an unrepeatable opportunity to make his personal story an illustration of the messy business of reconciling personal choice with unperceived consequences. But that’s easy for me to say: it’s his story, not mine.

Silence can be open to profound misinterpretation. Perhaps the pope’s silence reflects his yet unreconciled past (he is only human after all); or, perhaps, the silence itself speaks volumes – words are, at best, inadequate in the face of horrific brutality. Silence can reveal reverence: reverence for those who suffered and reverence for their suffering as well. Silence can likewise signify protest, not only against those who perpetrated the suffering, but toward the God who permitted it. In this unfathomable silence, I believe, Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI has taught (albeit unwittingly) his greatest lesson. After the verbal apologies are made, silence may be the only appropriate stance before the mystery of suffering and our varying degrees of participation in it. Perhaps, by his silence, the German pope reminds us of the ambiguous nature of faith which seldom provides iron-clad answers to life’s problems, only the courage to continue asking questions - even those that remain muted in awful and awe-filled silence.

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