The Christian message of ‘love thy neighbour’ was at the centre of remarks by leaders of the Catholic Church to two very different audiences in recent days.
On his visit to the Middle East, the Pope called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian homeland.
Although it is a call widely shared by the international community, it was probably not the first message that the Jewish government was hoping Pope Benedict would deliver on his arrival in Israel.
But Pope Benedict was leading by example.
Just before arriving in Israel he had visited Jordan, where he attempted to mend relationships with Islam.
He angered many Muslims three years ago with his quotation from a medieval text which |described the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings as “evil and inhuman”.
This time the Pope emphasised his regret at those remarks and praised the role of Islam. He obviously hopes that Israel can show some of the same char
ity towards Palestinians and work towards a two-state solution.
Of course it will take more than a few words from the Pope to bring any measure of resolution to the long-standing Middle East problems. It is more likely that his views will be rejected than heeded, just as Pope John Paul II was ignored by the IRA when he pleaded on his bended knee during his 1979 visit to Ireland for an end to terrorism.
What Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel — and his comments — have done is put the question of a political settlement back on the international agenda.
Closer to home, Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland’s Catholics, was also bridge-building with the Church of Ireland. Again his message was one of neighbourliness. Pointing out that sectarianism is still a scourge in Ireland in spite of the political advances, he stressed that it is a disease which |affects both communities, although many Catholics think they are immune from it.
The fact that Cardinal Daly was invited to the Church of Ireland General Synod — following on from last year’s invitation to President Mary McAleese — shows how relationships between the
two Christian denominations have improved. Indeed, the Church of Ireland has taken a very practical step in improving relationships by voting overwhelmingly to modify its prayer book to remove anti-Catholic sentiments or words that might offend other churches.
That is a reflection of the modern world. As the Synod pointed out, intemperate words dating from an older, more antagonistic age can continue to cause harm and hence the need for a review of the prayer book. What the Synod has shown is a respect for other Christian Churches. It is not diluting its own beliefs, but rather observing a central Christian tenet.
Of course, moves between the hierarchy of churches to bring about better relationships can often take some time to filter down into the pews. However, it takes people of goodwill, whether in the Middle East or in Northern Ireland, to take the first step. After that, no-one can be sure where the journey of reconciliation will end.