Rome & Jerusalem 2008

Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles Mission to Rome & Jerusalem

Led by
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond

Executive Vice President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
The Most Rev. Edward Wm. Clark

Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Los Angeles



Reflections from the 2008 Interfaith Mission to Rome & Jerusalem, with representatives of the Jewish, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, and Muslim faiths.


Rabbi Stewart Vogel
Board of Rabbis of Southern California
January 23, 2008

Today was a remarkable day for the Board of Rabbis. Thanks to the connections of our friend Bishop Ed Clark we were given the royal treatment at the Vatican. We were privileged to be seated in the very front rows of a large hall (that seats about ten thousand people) to hear a scriptural reading (read by different clergy in six different languages), followed by a d'var torah delivered by the Pope and concluded by an acknowledgement of different groups from around the world who were present. Some groups cheered as they were acknowledged, several choirs sang and one band even played for the Pope. At the conclusion of the hour-long program the Pope descended from his bimah with Bishop Clark and was personally introduced to four of the clergy in our group. In addition to two bishops, the Pope shook hands and spoke with Mark Diamond and me. I actually had the opportunity to present the Pope with a book written by a friend and congregant of mine comparing the teachings of Jesus and Jewish sources (I wrote the forward). The Pope was very gracious and it was truly a religious experience.

One of the most exciting moments of the day occurred when we met the NASA astronauts who had recently returned from a shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The Astronauts were seated near us and we spoke at length with them as we waited for an hour for the papal program to begin.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
Board of Rabbis of Southern California
January 23, 2008

It has been three days since we left Los Angeles on the Religious Leaders Mission to Rome and Jerusalem. Our group includes bishops, judicatory leaders, clergy and lay leaders of eight Christian, Jewish and Muslim denominations and movements. The frenetic itinerary has already enriched our hearts, minds and souls and brought us closer together as people of faith. Several experiences have left a deep impression on me, including:

-- Guided tours of the exquisite Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Basilica of St. Peter. One need not be a religious person nor an art historian to appreciate the grandeur and majesty of these holy places.

-- Private meetings and discussions with Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Council for Christian Unity and Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. They stressed the need for greater understanding and dialogue between communities of faith, and the grave dangers religious extremism poses for our world today.

Surely the highlight of our mission to Rome was the Wednesday Papal Audience in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall. Our group was honored with "prima filia" seats at the front of the cavernous hall, which seats some 10,000 people. It took nearly two hours for the hall to fill up, and during that time our delegation mixed with visitors from around the world. Seated near me were bishops from Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan and Romania, and the NASA astronauts from Space Shuttle mission STS-120 that returned to the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 7, 2007.

The Papal Audience can best be described as part prayer service, part pep rally, and part religious rock concert. Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the assemblage and delivered his homily in Italian. Papal assistants introduced dignitaries and delegations from around the world in their own native languages, punctuated by cheers, songs and applause from the large, diverse congregation. One delegation brought its own brass band; several others burst into choral song; still others held aloft banners and signs. True to his pastoral calling, Pope Benedict warmly greeted this "religious United Nations" in no less than six languages.

Following the formal audience, the Pope received the cardinals and bishops in attendance, including the Most Rev. Edward William Clark, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and my co-leader on our mission. Then came a procession of the sick and infirmed--men and women in wheelchairs and others walking slowly who passed before the Pope to receive his blessing. Afterwards the Pope came down to greet me and three other members of our Los Angeles delegation: Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and Episcopal Bishop Sergio Carranza. I was honored to present a "Papal gift" on behalf of the group--a crystal sculpture in the shape of a book engraved with the image of the Ten Commandments. I invoked Isaiah's words from the weekly Haftarah in a prayer of praise: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is filled with God's glory."
May our journey strengthen and deepen the bonds between our faith communities. In so doing, may we honor and glorify God and God's children.

I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's audience, including... members of a delegation from the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders. May God bestow abundant blessings upon all of you!

Pope Benedict XVI
January 23, 2007

The subject of Benedict's address was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A summary of his homily is available on the Vatican website, as is the Vatican News Service report on the general audience.

Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith
Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
23 January 2008

This afternoon while in Saint Peter's Basilica, we were shown the body of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), one of three such incorruptible papal bodies in the basilica. I was immediately reminded that if it were not for him, our group of Christians, Jews, and a Muslim would very likely not be here today!

John XXIII, as Pope, engaged the Jews of Rome in conversation outside their synagogue, just as he, as papal nuncio to Turkey several years before, engaged the Muslims of Istanbul in conversation. John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council which completely transformed our Catholic Church's relations not only with our fellow Christians, but most significantly with the Jews and Muslims (and Buddhists and Hindus) as well. It was John XXIII who pushed Nostra Aetate through the Council, and although he did not live to see it promulgated, our standing before his body today evidenced the document's significance, for it forever rejected anti-Semitism and the false charge of the Jews being the "Killers of Christ" as being part of Catholic teaching.

I prayed the Almighty God send us more John XXIII's, men and women with the insight and the courage to be people of vision and justice, and that our mission might indeed increase the level of acceptance and acknowledgement of each other as children of the same God.

Reverend Dr. Jerry D. Campbell, President
Claremont School of Theology
January 2008

On January 23rd, Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles attended a General Audience with Pope Benedict XVI. A General Audience is a time for the Pontiff to appear before, recognize, and bless special guests of every variety along with the Catholic faithful from Rome and throughout the world. The auditorium known as Paul VI Audience Hall was set up to accommodate 9,000, and every seat was taken.

It was a first-time experience for this life-long United Methodist who found it to be a profoundly moving religious occasion with a few pleasant surprises. Along with the recently returned to earth astronaut crew of U.S. space shuttle Atlantis, a group of Italian mayors, some newly weds, and many other special guests, we were seated in the first few rows of the auditorium. The leaders of our delegation and our high-ranking clergy officials were seated in the first row. This arrangement made it possible at the conclusion of the General Audience for the Pope to come down from the large stage and greet them personally on his way out. A few high ranking Roman Catholic clergy, some with parts to play later in introducing guests, were seated in a group of chairs on stage well to the left of center. At center stage, in front of a modern sculpture of Christ rising, stood a single high-backed armchair reserved for Pope Benedict.

After we were seated, it was necessary to wait for about an hour and a half for security to be satisfied, for the auditorium to be filled, and for the Pope to arrive. During this time, a most remarkable scene unfolded. This great audience of strangers sharing a spontaneous and unifying spirit of good will broke into a party-like time of celebration and anticipation. Thousands greeted those around them, some fingered their rosaries, voices and laughter filled the air, and a municipal band from an Italian city broke into a rousing march. The band also played a few Christmas hymns and the Italian national anthem as the large crowd sang along enthusiastically.

Anticipation of the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI was palpable. As the top of the hour neared, many crowed toward the central isle. But suddenly a voice from the crowd cried out, "Il Papa," and Pope Benedict entered from the stage door on the crowd's left. The auditorium erupted in great shouting, cheering, and applause, which continued for some time after Benedict XVI had reached his seat at center stage. When the auditorium finally grew quiet, the Pope delivered a message on the topic of a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The message, which included a welcome to our Los Angeles delegation, is summarized on the official Vatican web site.

Following the message, the many special guests, delegations, and pilgrim groups were introduced one by one. As the groups were recognized, the Holy Father recognized and welcomed each one. In these special moments of recognition, we witnessed a number of spontaneous outbreaks: high school groups cheered; nuns waved colorful scarves, the band played, and a couple from South America sang a hauntingly beautiful a cappella rendition of Ave Maria. One can imagine this moment being the high point of life for some of the pilgrims -- a once in a lifetime chance to express one's faith by sharing with the Holy Father. And all the while, Pope Benedict XVI sat attentively, encouragingly, and often with a wide smile.

After the recognitions, Pope Benedict XVI blessed all of us, and did so in six different languages. His blessing extended to our families and others for whom we brought special concerns, and he also blessed the objects we may have brought for that purpose. Most touchingly the General Audience concluded with the blessing of many handicapped individuals who were invited to cross the stage, most in wheel chairs, to receive the Holy Father's personal attention.

As Pope Benedict XVI left the stage, came down, and greeted the leaders of our Los Angeles delegation, I could not help but feel that with both his message and his warm welcome he had affirmed our interfaith agenda. That is what we had hoped. And I suspect that he similarly responded to the thousands of other hopes represented in the hall that day.

Bishop Sergio Carranza-Gomez
Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
January 27, 2008

I think that so far, this trip has done three things for me:

(1) To connect me with some historical aspects both of part of my religious background and my western culture heritage;

(2) To allow me to hear directly from official leaders of the Roman Catholic Church about their involvement in the ecumenical movement and the interreligious dialogue;

(3) And the most important thing, to make of us - Christians from different traditions, and Jews from different movements - one body which is able to speak as a united "we" whenever we address, in this pilgrimage, the problems and dilemmas of the world.

Rev. K. Cherie Jones
Atascadero United Methodist Church
January 28, 2008

What a rich, rich time we had on this trip! From wandering through the narrow streets of the Old City in Jerusalem to walking back corridors in the Vatican, we were surrounded by remarkable sights and sounds at every turn.

I'm grateful for this remarkable opportunity to speak with and learn from such a variety of religious and secular leaders. Many thanks to Rabbi Mark Diamond, and Bishop Ed Clark for their careful, meticulous work in pulling this trip together.

I'm also grateful for this company of pilgrims - wrestling with questions, pondering our future actions based on new knowledge, and a determination to continue finding ways to walk together. We have much work yet to do and it is a relief to have such reliable companions in the work.

Jo Zito
Atascadero United Methodist Church
January 29, 2008

I attended this trip as a lay person from the United Methodist Church. I signed up for this trip and told some friends what I was doing. When I mentioned the trip to my friend Anna Marie, tears welled up in her eyes and she said that she had to cancel her trip to Italy and Israel, last year, because she was under going chemotherapy treatments. As a practicing Catholic and I knew she would love to see the Vatican. She told me she had wanted to put a note in the Western wall in Jerusalem. I told her that I would get her a cross and have it with me when we had the audience with the Pope. Then I told her that I would put a note in the wall for her.

I bought the cross and carried it with me during the entire trip. It was blessed blessed by the Pope, traveled into St. Peters Basilica, into the catacombs beneath it and to our meetings with various Cardinals and Bishops. It went to the old City of Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter and it was with me when I put a note in the Western Wall.

The friend that drove me home from the airport told me that Anna Marie passed away while I was gone. She died in her sleep during the time we were in Jerusalem, the day we went to the Western Wall. She was buried the day before we returned. She would have loved the places we went, the people we met, the jokes we shared. She is in a much better place than we are but I wish I could have given her that Cross.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
January 29, 2008

This interfaith mission has taken us from Los Angeles to Rome to Jerusalem. Our three tightly scheduled and exhilarating days in Rome and the Vatican have been followed by three equally frenetic and fruitful days in Israel. We have prayed together in the Jewish, Christian and Moslem traditions, met with religious leaders of the three faiths, visited holy sites and met with a rich array of Israelis and Palestinians, including cabinet ministers, journalists, educators and young people. My personal highlights include the following:

-- An inspirational ceremony in Jerusalem's Old City in which the Latin Patriarch presented three members of the delegation with beautiful shells to welcome them into the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a worldwide Catholic benevolent society. This may have been the first such ceremony accompanied by joyful shouts of "mazal tov" that reverberated inside the walls of the Patriarchate.

-- A tearful interfaith commemoration at Yad Vashem's Valley of the Communities. Three members of our group---Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, Episcopal Bishop Sergio Carranza and the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith of the Catholic Archdiocese---shared poignant reflections on our visit to Yad Vashem that coincided with the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance.

Together we recalled the memories of six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and five million non-Jews who died as well. Together we prayed, wept and pledged never to forget their precious lives.

-- An evening of interfaith conversation with local religious leaders from the three Abrahamic faith communities. Member of Knesset Rabbi Michael Melchior inspired us with his vision of interfaith engagement, and the diverse assemblage of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Moslem clergy energized and enriched our delegation.

-- A site visit to the Bialik Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, an educational campus that serves 724 at-risk children in grades K-12. We met with principal Karen Tal and her devoted staff, and with children and teenagers from twenty-eight countries. They are new immigrants, children of foreign workers, refugees from Darfur and Israeli Arabs. Many are from single-parent families and many are not legal residents of the state. Bialik Rogozin is a caring and nurturing center that provides hot meals, music and art instruction, specialized tutoring and a solid education in a safe and welcoming environment.

The school is an innovative partnership of Israel's Ministry of Education, the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, Israeli philanthropists and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. As we said "Shalom" to our new young friends, I saw tears of pride and joy in the eyes of our adult visitors. I have never been more proud of the work we do in our Jewish Federation and the projects we support that save and transform lives across the globe.

Our visit concluded with a gala dinner featuring two of Israel's most gifted musicians---flutist Yossi Arnheim and oud-player Wisam Gibran. They spoke of their own projects to build bridges in Israel, including a Jewish-Arab youth orchestra and Sheshbesh, an adult musical ensemble sponsored by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In my closing remarks, I recalled our visit to the majestic Sistine Chapel, lovingly restored by artisans who removed centuries of dirt and grime to reveal the light and beauty of the original masterpieces. And I recalled our visit to the Bialik Rogozin School and a student's answer to the question, "What's the secret of how you get along with one another?" "We are all human beings and we treat each other equally," he replied. We should listen and learn from this radiant gem of youthful wisdom. We are all God's children, created in the Divine image. Our sacred task is to see the Divine in one another, and to brighten and restore God's image here on earth.

Rabbi Ron Stern
Stephen S. Wise Temple

The new Museum at Yad Vashem is entirely underground except for the central hall that is an enormous prism, open only along the ceiling and both ends. The visitors to the museum cross under the glass roofed prism several times as they move from exhibit to exhibit in the museum. The result of this dramatic and evocative display is to catapult one back in time so that the Holocaust is not merely observed, but on some level one is actually immersed in the sounds, the sights, the thoughts of the victims. While it is beyond human desire or, for that matter ability, to virtually re-experience the most horrific experience the world has ever known this museum crafts an encounter with hell that moves far beyond a museum experience.

That in itself would be powerful. But, the experience walking through Yad Vashem with a group of Christian religious and lay leaders who freely chose to both travel to Israel and to confront the power of Israel's holocaust memorial almost defies description. As we silently followed our young guide from room to room, I looked at the faces of my traveling partners. Each one was immersed in his or her thoughts, memories and personal confrontation with the Nazi Death machine and most powerfully, the indifference of the world. I looked at Bishop Ed Clark and the Right Reverend Alexi Smith as we stopped at the exhibit that silently indicted the Catholic church and its pope for their non-action; I could almost feel and see their sense of remorse and regret. It was clear to me that had they been present at this time in history they would have confronted the Vatican with all their spirit.

This is a painful museum but, I've studied the Holocaust, led and participated in Yom Ha-Shoah experiences since my teen-age years, haven't I become somewhat immune to the visions of suffering? Aren't I able to read and hear about an indifferent world without feeling the rage well up in me? Isn't it possible that I've seen it all and might be able to walk through the museum somewhat dispassionately? Perhaps. Unless... until I caught sight of Methodist Bishop Mary-Ann Swenson gazing painfully at the emaciated children and thought -- if she were alive then, she wouldn't' have remained silent. Unless. . . until I stood next to Anglican Bishop Sergio Carranza-Gomez and heard his poem, composed on-the-spot at the monument to the Destroyed Communities and thought -- if he were alive he would not have been silent. Until Reverend Dr. Jerry Campbell read the words of our memorial service with his endearing Texas drawl and I realized -- if he were alive then, he would have spoken out. And, it was then that the tears came, the tightening of the throat, the quickening of my heart, I looked in their eyes and knew -- they didn't have to come. They could have gone to Israel with their church groups or religious denominations, they could have stayed home from Yad Vashem. But, instead, they choose to stand side-to-side with us -- the rabbis who lead the congregations that remember the Shoah because we have lived the Shoah. And it was then, that I knew that we were among righteous gentiles. Had they been alive in those times, they would have trees planted along the pathways in their honor.

In a country of timeless beauty and power, in the monument and museum that is as much a memorial as it is a contextualization of Israel and what it means to Jews after the Holocaust I stood with righteous gentiles and knew that somehow in response to the world's darkest days, our Christian friends and fellow travelers were an answering ray of light and hope.