Yes – he was that close… We were in the perfect spot, right along the rail, as Benedict XVI slowly rolled by in his pope mobile, lifting his hands in greeting to the people as he made his way to the center platform that had been set up and decorated in preparation for his coming. After he passed by, we found our way to a different place in the crowd, further away from the rail, but with a better central view of the event.
Lebanon had been preparing for this visit for months. Since we had to get back to Iraq yesterday for school, we couldn’t make it to the closing Mass, but we went instead to Benedict’s meeting with the youth. It was a smaller event, so we actually had the opportunity to be much closer to the Holy Father than we would have in the Mass, which was a massive sea of people. An estimated 30,000 youth (along with a few senior citizens that managed to slip their way in to cheer the pope and hear what he had to say!) gathered to meet with Benedict.
We arrived early, around 3:30 and joined thousands of others in waiting under the hot sun for the Pope to arrive. It reminded me of many other times I’d been to large gatherings with the Pope – prayers, songs, cheers, preparatory speeches… and, finally, the moment of his arrival. I could definitely tell a difference between this time and the multiple times I saw Pope John Paul II and Benedict previously –while I was still glad to see the Pope, I wasn’t as enthralled with the heat, waiting time, and crowds. As a teen, it was just part of the atmosphere that contributed to mounting excitement; now, it was a necessary annoyance for the sake of a greater good…
Different things had been prepared in honor of the event. A large rosary made from balloons hovered in the air and was released upwards into the sky upon Benedict’s arrival. Interpretive dances that accompanied songs prepared for the visit were performed, gifts were presented and fireworks were set off. There were readings, the Gospel, the central address from the Holy Father and prayers of the faithful.
While the pope’s address on the importance of peace, dialogue and a “revolution of love” was very appropriate, I believe that his strongest message was conveyed not through his speech, but by his presence. He did not preach about peace and an end to violence from abroad. He was not influenced by the widespread media stereotype about the Middle East and did not list to political advisors that suggested canceling the trip due to the nearby troubles in Syria. By traveling to Lebanon, he gave the world a different picture of the region for a few days. He showed that there is another Middle East – one that doesn’t often make the news, but is very present: a youthful Middle East, a peaceful Middle East, a Middle East where Christians and Muslims can mix together to show their respect and appreciation for the Holy Father, a Christian leader… a Middle East where normal people live normal lives, with normal hopes and dreams. They get up, work, socialize, hopefully pray and talk to God, and go to bed like people all over the rest of the world. The Holy Father’s presence was a visit of hope; he showed this “other” Middle East, comprised of Christians and Muslims, that he knows they exist, and he encouraged them to continue in their efforts to bring sustainable, lasting peace and dialogue into the future.
He also showed the world that this region is worth supporting and investing in. He was willing to come at his own risk. As an 85 year old man, he came to a hot, humid climate and stuck to an exhausting schedule. His presence did not show only his care for these people, but the care of the whole Church. The Christians in the Middle East live in the land where Jesus walked; they are perpetuating a great heritage, and it would be a true tragedy for Christianity to cease in the land of its beginnings. By reaching out to these Christians, Benedict XVI not only offers them hope and gives them a vote of confidence, but also appeals to others to do likewise.
The Middle East has suffered greatly. Even the areas that are safe and stable (and yes, they do exist!) are pulled down by the reputation projected on the region when incidents of violence, unrest or war occur. The Christians in the region have suffered even more due to persecution, not only in ancient times, but recently as well. Benedict XVI cannot take away the suffering in this region, but he could, for a few days, accompany them, and sometimes, an understanding ear and encouraging voice is what suffering people need the most. When nations are discouraged at their own reality, they need an outside voice to bring them hope and show them the positive parts of their culture that they have ceased to see. Benedict XVI brought that hope and encouragement.
The Holy Father also received very positive greetings from the Muslims – hopefully a favorable sign that goes further than the day of his visit. Many Muslims joined the Christians in eagerly welcoming the Pope to Lebanon – many of them too felt that he came as a beacon of hope and that he is an agent of peace. Again, his presence, even more than his words, conveyed a message: in spite of all the media news regarding divisions and tensions between Muslims and Christians, he offered them trust by coming in a politically contentious moment. They returned that trust by working side-by-side with the Christians to prepare for his trip and host him in their country.
Benedict XVI did what he could, and truly exhausted himself to show this part of the world how much he cares and how much he wants to help them. After his days in Lebanon, he has moved on to continue bringing the Lord’s message of love to others. It is now up to the Christians in the Middle East to determine the true value of his visit. The Holy Father lit a match that can burn out or be used to start a fire. I am hoping that the people there truly heard his message, not only with their ears but with their hearts, and that his message lasts longer than the momentary excitement of his presence, equipping them a little more as they continue to face the challenge of cultural transformation.
Brothers and sisters, the path on which Jesus wishes to guide us is a path of hope for all. Jesus’ glory was revealed at the very time when, in his humanity, he seemed weakest, particularly through the incarnation and on the cross. This is how God shows his love; he becomes our servant and gives himself to us. Is this not an amazing mystery, one which is at times difficult to accept?
Benedict XVI – Lebanon, September 16, 2012
If interested in knowing more about the Holy Father’s visit to Lebanon, click here to view his homily at the closing Mass, and here for his address to the youth. Here is a video that also gives a summary report of the meeting with the youth: