Gratitude and Cooperation

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The ceremony of Pope Benedict XVI’s ascension to the throne of St. Peter in 2005 coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, making it difficult for Jewish religious leaders (and impossible for some) to accept an invitation to this historic event. The situation is similar to the pope’s April visit to the United States, which again coincides with the eve of Passover.

However, the fact that invitations were extended to rabbis to attend the pope’s installation was a powerful indication of Benedict’s special commitment to the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism.

Little more than a month after his ascension as pope, Benedict received a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. This group is the official partner of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and embraces the principle Jewish advocacy organizations as well as the major streams of contemporary Judaism. Notably, Benedict received this delegation almost immediately after the beginning of his pontificate, even before he had received delegations from other branches of Christianity.

At this meeting the pope said, “In the years following the [Second Vatican] Council, my predecessors Pope Paul VI and, in a special way, Pope John Paul II, took significant steps toward improving relations with the Jewish people. It is my intention to continue on this path.”

As further proof of this intention, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, during World Youth Day 2005 — his first visit to a non-Christian place of worship as pope. There he referred to the above-mentioned meeting, saying, “Today I wish to reaffirm that I intend to continue with great vigor on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people, following the decisive lead given by Pope John Paul II.”

On both occasions Benedict outlined more of his thinking on the nature and purpose of this relationship. While acknowledging the tragic past and deploring resurgent anti-Semitism, Benedict asserted that “the ‘spiritual patrimony’ treasured by Christians and Jews is itself the source of the wisdom and inspiration capable of guiding us toward a future of hope in accordance with the Divine Plan.”

A Close Friend Back to Top

Throughout the first year of his pontificate, Benedict continued to meet with Jewish organizations and leaders, including the chief rabbis of Israel and the chief rabbi of Rome. In receiving the latter he said, “The Catholic Church is close and is a friend to you. Yes, we love you and we cannot but love you, because of the Fathers: Through them you are very dear and beloved brothers to us.”

The pope also expressed his gratitude for the divine protection of the Jewish people that has guaranteed its survival over the course of history: “The People of Israel have been delivered from the hands of enemies on frequent occasions, and, in the centuries of anti-Semitism and during the tragic moments of the Shoah, the hand of the Almighty sustained and guided them.”

These ideas were prominent in Pope Benedict’s writings prior to his election. In December 2000, in an article titled “The Heritage of Abraham: the Gift of Christmas” published in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:

“Abraham, father of the people of Israel, father of faith, has become the source of blessing, for in him ‘all the families of the earth shall call themselves blessed.’ The task of the Chosen People is therefore to make a gift of their God — the one true God — to every other people. In reality, as Christians we are the inheritors of their faith in the one God. Our gratitude, therefore, must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present and who witness to it in the sight of those peoples who, lacking knowledge of the one God ‘dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death’ (Lk 1:79).”

A Condemnation of Anti-Semitism Back to Top

In this same article, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the question of anti-Semitism and the degree to which Christianity has been associated with it. He wrote, “Even if the most recent loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetuated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.”

Benedict reiterated this idea that the anti-Semitic goals of Nazi ideology were also anti-Christian when he visited the site of the concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2006.

In describing the intentions of Nazism, he said, “Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham… By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear out the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention…”

There can be no greater condemnation and repudiation of anti-Semitism than what is expressed in these words. It is a normal reaction to condemn anti-Semitism as evil. It is more remarkable to call it “a sin against God and man,” as Pope John Paul II did. Yet, it is with still greater significance that Pope Benedict emphasizes that anti-Semitism is an assault against the very roots of Christianity and any hostile sentiment toward Jews must be intolerable for a true Christian.

A Shared Goal: Peace Back to Top

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people; the danger and the warning of anti-Semitism that reached its zenith in the Shoah; and the joint responsibility for humankind born above all out of that “shared patrimony,” but also out of the lessons of history, are central themes in Benedict’s theological worldview.

We must also not overlook his profound understanding of the significance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he served on the Special Committee of the Holy See that reviewed and authorized the establishment of full relations between Israel and the Vatican. Among his close friends in Israel is Zwi Werblowsky, a professor and one of the Jewish Israeli pioneers of inter-faith dialogue. Cardinal Ratzinger phoned Werblowsky in Jerusalem to express his joy over this development, describing it as the fruit of the work of Vatican II.

This is not insignificant. Not everyone in the Church has appreciated the central role Israel plays in contemporary and historic Jewish identity. Pope Benedict does understand it and fully realizes that the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel is inextricably bound up with the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people.

Of course this is not without its complications.

Conflicting interests in the Holy Land and in the Muslim world cannot be overlooked. The ability to reconcile these interests depends overwhelmingly upon a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Accordingly, the subject of prayer for peace in the Holy Land has been a recurrent theme in the pope’s homilies and addresses. He has indicated that such peace would be a source of blessing to the world. Indeed, Benedict has frequently referred to the need for Jews and Christians to pray and to work together for the goal of peace in the world at large.

In his message last year on the occasion of the “Day of Judaism” held by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (and by a number of other bishops’ conferences), the pope stated, “I invite you all to address an ardent prayer to the Lord: that Jews and Christians may respect and esteem one another and collaborate for justice and peace in the world.”

In the words of the Hebrew liturgy, may I add: “May it be our Father in Heaven’s Will that this prayer be fulfilled soon in our times.”

Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, heads the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs. Based in Jerusalem, he is also the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. He was a member of the Bilateral Committee that negotiated the establishment of full relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. In October 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made him a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great — the first Israeli and the only Orthodox rabbi to have received such distinction.

(CNS Photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)