After the exchange of often-pro forma declarations on the range of issues that typically characterize Jewish-Catholic dialogue sessions, the pair posed for photographs.
“He grabbed my hand,” Foxman said, and said, in English, “I will be there for you in your fight against anti-Semitism.”
“I wasn’t surprised” by the unscripted remark, Foxman said. “He’s a smart man.” The German-born Pope, who unexpectedly announced this week that he will resign, at 85, by the end of this month because of failing health, understands the importance of anti-Semitism — which many Jews fear is on the rise worldwide, especially in countries with growing Muslim populations — to the Jewish community. “He’s a student of history.”
“He kept his word,” speaking out regularly against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial during the following years as leader of the Catholic Church, Foxman said. “He was good for the Jews — period.”
In nearly identical words, many longtime participants in interfaith dialogue this week praised the tenure of Benedict XVI, a studious-but-introverted man who succeeded the charismatic John Paul II as Pope. They pointed to Benedict XVI’s visit to Auschwitz, where he declared that “by destroying Israel, [the Nazis] ultimately wanted to tear up the tap root of the Christian faith”; to his visit to Yad Vashem, where he expressed “deep compassion” for the “millions of Jews killed”; to his visits to synagogues in Rome, New York City and Cologne, Germany; to his institution of Days of Judaism, on which the tenets of the Jewish religion are taught at Catholic churches around the world; to his frequent meetings with Jewish leaders during his international travels. And they pointed to his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II,” which stated that there is no basis in the New Testament for claims that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus.”
The Jewish leaders said Benedict XVI built on the work of John Paul II, who had repeatedly broken ground in Jewish-Catholic ties, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, visiting Rome’s synagogue, apologizing for Christian indifference to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, referring to Judaism as the honored “older brother” of Christianity and in general pushing relations with the Jewish community to the forefront of Catholic concerns.
“A lot of people [in the Jewish community] were very anxious. A lot of people were very worried” when the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a voice for conservatism in the church hierarchy, and a member, against his will, of the Hitler Youth in his homeland in World War II, became Pope, according to Foxman.
Benedict XVI, Foxman said this week, “walked in the footsteps of John Paul. [He] has profoundly bolstered the positive trajectory of Catholic-Jewish relations.” Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, called Benedict XVI “a faithful successor to his predecessor. He set a template for the future.”
Benedict XVI, said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of the Upper East Side Park East Synagogue, which the Pope visited in 2008, “was a reaffirmation” of the work John Paul II did in improving Jewish-Catholic ties. “He broadened that.”
“The constructive policy toward the Jews” that continued under Benedict XVI “is the work of two and nearly three generations of Catholic hierarchy, “ said Jacob Neusner, professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College. “It’s not going to change for the foreseeable future. More important, a younger generation has established its commitment to the Jewish connection.”
“He really consolidated a lot of the efforts” of John Paul II. “He confirmed all the major advances” that began under John XXIII in the early 1960s and were strengthened during the papacy of John Paul II, said Eugene Fisher, retired associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who for three decades coordinated the Church’s Jewish-Catholic dialogue in this country.
The recent improvements in Jewish-Catholic ties have “become a very strong tradition,” Fisher told The Jewish Week. “The major themes are solidly established in Church teaching.”
Rabbi Yona Metzger, Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, called in a press release Benedict XVI’s papacy a period of “the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate.”
Jewish leaders said Benedict XVI institutionalized the changes in Jewish-Catholic relations that John Paul II had introduced. While some long-term issues remain unresolved, like the opening of the Vatican’s wartime archives, which would fully reveal the record of Pope Pius XII, and the pending canonization of Pius XII, Benedict XVI took positive in both of those areas, the Jewish leaders said.
And, they said, problems that arose since Benedict XVI became Pope in 2005, like allowing the reintroduction of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass that includes a call for conversion of Jews, and his lifting of the excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, in an effort to broaden the Church’s base, did not prove threatening to Jewish interests.
The reintroduction of the Latin Mass did not indicate a renewed interest in conversion of the Jews, the Vatican subsequently explained, and the Pope later said that he would not have lifted the ban on Williamson had he known the bishop’s statements about the Shoah. The leadership of the conservative Society of St. Pius X of which Williamson was a prominent member, expelled him on the grounds that he had failed “to show due respect and obedience to his lawful superiors.”
Rabbi Rosen said the Pope’s missteps in the Latin Mass and the Williamson affair were a matter more of failing to proactively explain Vatican actions than of faulty policies. “In both cases [the original Vatican steps] were not of Benedict’s making.”
The Pope’s decision “to return to a Latin Mass … could have been handled with greater sensitivity,” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote in an op-ed essay this week, “but the idea that the liturgy is somehow wrong, uncaring, or necessarily damaging to Catholic-Jewish-relations, is simply foolish.
“It is unfair,” Rabbi Hirschfield wrote, “to complain about a text, which has its own parallels in Jewish liturgy, and especially unfair when those doing the complaining still recite Jewish prayers not so different from the mass to which they objected.
“Even the Pope’s ongoing negotiations to re-integrate excommunicated Bishops who teach clearly anti-Semitic views, and even deny the Holocaust, were handled with far greater care than Benedict was often given credit for,” Rabbi Hirschfield wrote.
While Benedict spoke in favor of the canonization of Pius XII, he did not “fast-track” the process, as he did for John Paul II, and while he did not fully open the Vatican archives, he started a process that supposedly will result in greater access to scholars over the next decade, Jewish leaders said.
“He intensified the commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations,” a process that started with Pope John XXIII, during whose papacy the Second Vatican Council, which liberalized Church teachings, and the Nostra Aetate declaration, which opened the way to Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said Rabbi Schneier, founder of the ecumenical Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Rabbi Schneier met with Benedict XVI on many occasions in New York City, Rome and Israel. “He understood the history of the Jewish people and the threat of anti-Semitism. He understood the tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust].”
The identity and background of Benedict XVI’s successor, who will be selected next month by a vote of Cardinals, may determine the tenor of future Jewish-Catholic relations. There is speculation that a non-European Cardinal may be the choice — someone, Rabbi Schneier said, who may “not have the personal and historical experience of the last two Popes,” who lived through World War II. In other words, someone who may be less sensitive than Benedict XVI to Jewish concerns.
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