It was an unusual appearance. Benedict XVI arrived in the back of the papal plane just after it took off for the return trip to Italy. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi introduced him with a smile, calling this "the longest, most complicated and maybe most tiring" of the Pontiff's 12 foreign voyages. Benedict, his face toasty bronze from a week of public appearances under consistently sunny skies, repeated his call to seek signs of hope in an otherwise bleak Middle East landscape. Having just come from deep prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' death and resurrection, he also passionately urged people of all faiths to make religious pilgrimages.
The press tends to gauge papal trips on more concrete terms. (It's hard to confirm, for example, whether the Pope's prayers are answered.) On the way to board the papal plane, I began a quick and necessarily insufficient "grading" of Benedict's trip. There was not a vast range of marks, with the Italian press generally being more positive, a German reporter giving the Pontiff a C-minus for his much criticized remarks at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem), and one veteran concluding that John Paul would have been much more inspiring at these events. (See pictures of the Pope's visit to the Holy Land.)
Two veteran American news-wire reporters were making their umpteenth papal trips. Victor Simpson of the Associated Press took his first in 1979; Phil Pullella of Reuters made his maiden voyage in 1982. We won't report who gave which mark, but one gave a B "'cause he made the trip in the first place," the other a C-plus "for missed opportunities."
Over eight days, Benedict delivered 28 different sermons and speeches, more than 15,000 words that carried his message of peace and reconciliation and his reading of the Christian gospel to a religiously charged and troubled land. But the jury is still out on whether this theologian Pontiff has the geopolitical wherewithal to matter in these complicated times. With the Obama Administration gearing up to try to jump-start Middle East negotiations Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington next week the Pope's presence in the region could have offered an extra jolt of momentum. Instead, the conflicts and expectations of the regions' opposing parties, as well as a papal tentativeness on certain issues, produced a number of muddled messages.
Still, there was some good news to emerge from his travels to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories in that his presence did not detonate any religious or political dynamite. With the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians at a dangerous impasse, just making the Middle East trip against the counsel of some of his more cautious advisers would seem to carry some bankable positive weight for the Pontiff.
Benedict seems to see that he must follow in John Paul II's footsteps as a champion of interreligious dialogue. He delivered several speeches and attended ceremonies focused on relations with Jewish, Muslim, Druse, Orthodox and other men of the cloth. Once believed to have been reticent about focusing too much on relations with other religions, the man with the world's largest flock (1.1 billion Catholics worldwide) seems to now grasp the importance of this role. Vatican spokesman Lombardi said the Pope's physical presence "is itself a bridge" for improved relations among all religions. "He listened and was listened to. He can offer a spiritual and moral contribution to dialogue," said Lombardi. "The responsibility is to form consciences." Perhaps dearest to the heart of the devout Pontiff were the stops with far less obvious political overtones: visits to the sites of Jesus' birth, baptism and death, as well as masses with the largely besieged flock of Middle Eastern Christians.
By the arrival of the papal plane at Ciampino airport, the wire reporter's C-plus grade for the Pontiff had been bumped up to a B-minus. Maybe it was the Israeli chardonnay served onboard. Maybe it was simply an acknowledgment that we and the Pontiff were safely back in Rome.