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Vatican paper mutes bishops' attacks

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VATICAN CITY
In a season of tension between the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and President Barack Obama, the Vatican newspaper has offered some unexpectedly upbeat reviews of the president's first four months in office.

With Pope Benedict XVI expected to meet Obama in early July, it's worth a closer look at what L'Osservatore Romano has had to say, and what it finds so promising about the new U.S. administration.

The newspaper enjoys a degree of editorial independence, especially under its new editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, so its opinions cannot be read as formal Vatican policy statements.

But it describes itself as "at the service of the thinking of the pope" and in practice works closely with the Vatican Secretariat of State. If its myriad front-page articles on Obama were going in the wrong direction, one can be sure that the editors would feel a swift tug on the reins.

Three great ironies about Benedict's Holy Land visit

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Jerusalem

After the most demanding high-wire act of his papacy, a grueling week that saw the 82-year-old pontiff deliver 28 speeches while shuttling among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it seems terribly simplistic to offer a report card, but here we go nonetheless: Give Benedict XVI an A for effort, and a B for execution.

Benedict scored gains in getting Catholic-Muslim relations back on track, especially in Jordan, and with a high-profile visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. He also offered forceful words on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, endorsing the two-state solution as a global moral consensus, and offered a shot in the arm to the struggling Christian population -- though how much any pope can do to bring peace to the Middle East, or to arrest the long-term demographic movement of Christians out of the region, is open to question.

Benedict rides 'peace train' to Nazareth

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Nazareth, Israel

Pope Benedict XVI continued riding what one might call his metaphorical "peace train" in the Middle East today, calling upon followers of different faiths to build bridges and reject hatred – which, the pope said, "kills men's souls before it kills bodies."

Summing up Benedict's message on his week-long trip, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi today used three words: "Peace, peace, peace."

Very much in that spirit, this afternoon brought arguably the best visual of the trip. At the close of an inter-faith meeting in Nazareth involving Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze, the pope and leaders of each community stood on stage and held hands while belting out a song specially composed for the occasion: "Salam, Shalom, Lord Grant Us Peace."

Standing in the center of the stage, Benedict held hands with a rabbi and a Druze sheikh.

This was the pontiff's lone day in Nazareth, described in the New Testament as the hometown of Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph. It's located in northern Israel in the Galilee, roughly 70 miles from Jerusalem.

Church in Israel struggles to find its Hebrew voice

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Nazareth, Israel

In theory, the Catholic presence in the Middle East ought to be a natural bridge with the other two great monotheistic faiths of the region, Islam and Judaism. As far as Islam goes, that's long been a practical reality: Arab Christians share both language and culture with their Muslim neighbors, and, for the most part, a common political perspective.

With Judaism, however, the picture is far cloudier. Arab Christians tend to be on the opposite side of a cultural and political divide from many Israeli Jews, limiting the possibilities for face-to-face contact, and sometimes making those occasions more likely to spark tension than understanding.

Largely unknown to outsiders, however, the Catholic presence in Israel is not limited to Arab Christians. For the first time on this trip, Benedict XVI today acknowledged another face of the church, one that may have much greater potential for engaging both Judaism and civil society: Its small Hebrew-speaking community.

"I greet the Hebrew-speaking Christians, a reminder to us of the Jewish roots of our faith," the pope said during an evening vespers service in Nazareth.

Today, Benedict belonged to the Palestinians

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Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories

After a rough forty-eight hours for Pope Benedict XVI in the Middle East, the pontiff attempted to get back on track today with his most explicitly political message. On his lone day in the Palestinian Territories, Benedict delivered the papal equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 “tear down this wall!” speech in Berlin.

Pope strikes new balance in the Old City

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Jerusalem

One theme of Pope Benedict XVI's week-long visit to the Holy Land has been outreach to both Muslims and Jews, and today brought the week's most delicate balancing act: Visits to both the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, neighboring sites in Jerusalem's Old City sacred to Islam and Judaism, respectively, as well as meetings with both the city's Grand Mufti and Grand Rabbis.

Though Benedict XVI has met both Muslims and Jews before, meeting them both on the same day, and in two of the holiest sites on earth for each faith, was a novelty.

At the level of symbolism, Benedict tried to offer just the right touch in both places.

At the Dome of the Rock, a sanctuary housing the rock from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven, Benedict removed his shoes. (The fact that he didn't take them off at the Hussein-bin-Talal mosque in Jordan, even though his hosts told him he didn't need to, caused a brief frisson.)

The pope and Hitler Youth (Benedictís words)

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Jerusalem

During a press briefing in Jerusalem today, the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, chided reporters for repeating what he called a falsehood – namely, the claim that the young Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was once a member of the Hitler Youth.

"The pope was never in the Hitler Youth: never, never, never," Lombardi said.

Unfortunately for Lombardi, his assertion is contradicted by a fairly unimpeachable source: the future pope himself.

Before proceeding, a necessary caveat: The historical evidence is overwhelming that Joseph Ratzinger’s family was ferociously anti-Nazi, and that the future pope was appalled by the arrogance and destructiveness of National Socialism. He was never a Nazi party member, entered an auxiliary unit of the German army only when forced to do so, and deserted before war’s end. He was an American prisoner of war in a camp near Ulm, Germany, before being released and returning to his seminary studies.

Benedictís timeless touch noble, but tricky

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Jerusalem

News Analysis
tPope Benedict XVI's visit yesterday to Yad Vashem, Israel's main Holocaust memorial, had been billed coming into this trip as a make-or-break moment, a key test of whether the pontiff could mend fences with Jews after several recent setbacks. This morning, the lead commentary in Haaretz, Israel's leading daily, carried this reaction: "Benedict's speech showed verbal indifference and banality."

tSafe to say, that's not exactly the headline the Vatican was hoping for.

tTo be sure, other Jewish commentators so far have been far more positive, accenting the importance of the pope's choice to visit Yad Vashem and his firm commitment to Holocaust remembrance. A striking number of critical voices, however, saw the visit as a missed opportunity. (Notably, those voices included the chairman of the board of directors at Yad Vashem.)

At Yad Vashem, what pope doesn't say makes waves

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Jerusalem

Pope Benedict XVI has long been a figure who draws mixed reactions, with many admiring his clarity and intellectual depth, and others turned off by his traditionalism and occasional lack of a popular touch.

The pontiff's keenly anticipated visit today to Yad Vashem, the main Israeli Holocaust memorial, is likely to become another chapter in Benedict's mixed reviews. Some are likely to see it as a stirring poetic meditation on memory and justice, while others will probably be more struck what the pope didn't say than what he did.

Pope in Israel mends fences, but doesn't pull punches

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Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, Israel

Especially in light of the recent uproar about Benedict XVI's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, a key drama heading into his visit to Israel was whether the pontiff's need to mend fences with Jews would blunt his message about a just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially the "two-state solution."

Another way of putting that question is whether Benedict would emphasize the past or the future, the memory of the Holocaust or the present reality of the Middle East. Today the pope seemed to provide an answer, which was: He'll do both.

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