There are different versions of when it happened, but more than 60 years ago when confronted with the idea that the Vatican might not be enamored with his policies, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin remarked: “How many divisions does the pope have?”
For some people, this cynical comment can be taken as a wonderful expression of realpolitik.
However, others might remember another point in history when Pope John Paul II maintained a strongly principled position that served as a catalyst to the collapse of the mighty empire that Stalin helped create.
In other words, those who believe that the words of a pope or other religious figure have no impact can end up being quite mistaken.
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Friday and has already preached a multi-level message.
He has exhorted the faithful and the wider public against the evils of religious fundamentalism, war, and the uprooting of Christians from their homelands.
He has spoken out against injustice, and brings a message of peace. The pope is also reassuring Christians in Lebanon and the Middle East that they are not alone, and that they have the backing of the Vatican.
Benedict’s message is that these communities are part of this region; they should remain here and interact with the followers of other religions, the majority of whom also want universal values such as peace, coexistence and development.
However, while the pontiff speaks out against oppression, he and the world continue to face the glaring injustice that has been suffered, and continues to be suffered, by the Palestinians.
The Vatican, as a political institution, has acknowledged this state of affairs and has supported solutions to rectify this injustice.
But speaking out is one thing. The Vatican should be up to the responsibility of fighting injustice by pursuing the Palestine issue and making it a concrete objective.
The Catholic Church might not have divisions in the military sense of the word, but it has a number of means and resources at its disposal.
It has a vibrant presence in Palestine, which means it should be fully aware of the situation there.
It falls on the pope, who has promised to combat oppression and injustice, to make every effort – forcefully and transparently – to eradicate the injustice suffered by the Palestinians.
It is only then that all of the rhetoric about peace in this part of the world can actually be achieved; otherwise, the tension, violence and feelings of injustice will continue, and this hope of peace will continue to be placed on hold.
While Lebanon’s honored guest and the institution he represents should advocate tirelessly for peace, with an eye to achieving tangible results, politicians should do their part as well. They must prove that their enthusiastic welcome of a man bearing a message of peace and fighting injustice is not just a show.