JERUSALEM • It is always a blessing to meet the Pope, but I did not expect the blessing of meeting him at the Western Wall.
On several visits here, I have always come to the Western Wall to pray. It’s not the principal holy site for Christians, but the retaining wall of the Temple Mount remains holy. It is holy for Jews, our elder brothers in the faith. The site was holy for Jesus, who came to the Temple to worship, to teach and, notably, to drive away the money-changers in righteous anger. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations — so said Jesus of the Temple, and even now pilgrims come from the nations to pray here.
And on Tuesday, awaiting the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI on the plaza of the Western Wall, the nations were well represented. I was with the dignitaries as a guest of the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, thanks to the good offices of a Canadian friend who knows the rabbi well.
The two rabbis chosen to greet Pope Benedict after he prayed at the wall were from New York. If the Pope thought it odd to meet a New York rabbi and a Canadian priest at the Western Wall he did not show it. After all, the nations all do come to pray here.
Praying at the Western Wall requires a determined interior recollection for the Pope. The Middle Eastern style — both for Jews and Arabs — is more intimate, so the Pope is always surrounded by a crush of aides, hosts, officials, bodyguards, television cameras, photographers and well-wishers. The throng often swallows him up entirely, as he is short in stature and almost timid in his movements. During his silent prayer before the wall, he had to contend with angry photographers shouting at security personnel who were standing in the desired shot. All this must be endured without the slightest grimace or raised eyebrow, lest an irritated papal visage adorn the front pages of newspapers around the globe.
So a certain mild chaos accompanied the scene. That is not altogether out of place, for a certain chaos — mild and otherwise — is not alien to this place. The Temple Mount, site of the second temple, is the holiest site for Jews, who believe the foundation stone of the whole world is to be found here, the Mount Moriah of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the Holy of Holies of the Temple, where only the high priest could enter.
The Temple itself was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans and was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century, since which time the Dome of the Rock shrine has sat upon the Temple Mount — or Noble Sanctuary, as the Muslims call it. It marks the place where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and its now-shimmering golden dome has become the international symbol of Jerusalem.
Religious Jews do not enter the Temple Mount, and Muslims do not come the Western Wall. In the ironies of history, it remains Christian pilgrims who can move freely from one place to the other, even though our holiest site is a short walk from here — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Pope Benedict, the chief Christian pilgrim, came to both places, but with a difference.
At the Dome of the Rock he visited, showed his esteem for his Muslim hosts, then delivered an address calling for cooperation and respect between Christians, Jews and Muslims. He did not pray formally upon the Temple Mount, as the Muslim authorities do not permit non-Muslim prayer on the site.
At the Western Wall no such problem exists, and he prayed Psalm 122 in Latin – for both Christians and Jews share the psalms as their daily prayers. Psalm 122 — Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they prosper who love you! — is one of the “psalms of ascent” that Jews prayed when going up to Jerusalem in the second temple period.
Jesus would have prayed it. I lead pilgrims in praying it when I bring them to Jerusalem. To hear the Holy Father pray it here was deeply moving, and I shall never pray it quite the same way again, touched as that prayer is now by this historic moment.