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Zionist Brandeis Award Event

Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore

As Neil Rubin of the Jewish Times can attest, when people come to my office to see me, they may be asked to wait opposite the one photograph mounted beside the doors to the elevators. It shows Pope John Paul II, as he placed his prayer into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a prayer which reads as follows, “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

As the Pope moved his hand across the wall, all who watched saw his sadness. He seemed to be in touch with all the sufferings of the Jewish people down through the centuries. It was a moment that moved hearts, as I learned at a meeting with rabbis in Washington a couple of years ago.

Before I came to Baltimore, I served as co-chair, with Rabbi Joel Zaiman, of the dialogue between Jewish religious leaders in the Synagogue Council of America and the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee of our National Conference of Catholic Bishops. We developed a close friendship, which became stronger here in the City. Now the Jewish partner to the dialogue is the National Council of Synagogues.

When I first arrived in Baltimore, a number of rabbis came from New York to attend the installation service, a kindness I will never forget. [I moved into the Basilica rectory—the Basilica was described by Pope John Paul II as architecturally the worldwide symbol of religious freedom. Maryland was the first place in the English-Speaking world with religious freedom.] And the Jewish community tendered a reception for me, at which I met Rabbi Herman Neuberger, head of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, who suggested that we collaborate on moral and governmental issues, which we did. I extend sympathy to the local and national communities who mourn the passing of Rabbi Neuberger.

When Karol Wotyla was growing up, his best friend was Jewish, a man who eventually ended up in Rome, before Karol was elected to become Pope John Paul II in 1978. (When I went to Rome in 1988 for meetings with the Pope and officials of his staff in Rome, he spent so much time talking to me about his friend in Rome, that I had to interrupt him and say, “Holy Father, if I do not tell you something about my diocese, I will be in trouble back home.”)

In fact some 30% of his schoolmates were Jewish, which led the Pope to speak to us in Castel Gandolfo about his experience in returning to his home town Wadowice after the Second World War. He said to us that “they were all gone, casualties to the Nazi effort to annihilate the Jewish people.”

He told us that he had meditated that morning on the Exodus, and that this helped him to understand the high value Jewish people placed on the State of Israel, a fulfillment of the ancient biblical prophecy of a place of safety and refuge.

Now Pope Benedict XVI is following in the footsteps of John Paul II. The first telephone call I had when I returned to the office from the Conclave in Rome was from Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League. He wanted to congratulate me on our choice of popes. (As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict had been in Israel on several occasions and made speeches in which he acknowledged the importance of the State. And he had written personally and signed the preface to the document on the key place of the Hebrew Scriptures for Catholics – a scholarly work.)

Incidentally, at the press conference immediately following the Conclave, I was happy to point out the presence of Rabbi Jack Bemporad and have him stand for recognition. He had helped arrange the meeting with the rabbis at which we discussed the Hebrew Bible and its importance for Catholics. We do hold that the First Covenant is the revealed word of God and that the commentaries written over the centuries by rabbis are very helpful for understanding it.

The Second Vatican Council, meeting in the early sixties as the most authoritative body in the Catholic Church, had said, “according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her (i.e., the Church’s) faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.” (Nostra Aetate, 4)

I must tell you that Catholics who know the Council documents were a bit surprised when some Jewish commentators criticized Pope Benedict for not attacking anti-Semitism on the occasion of his visit to Germany, when the Council was so explicit in its condemnation: “…, in her rejection of every persecution against any person, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews, … decries hatred, persecution, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” (Nostra Aetate, ibid.)

At Prague, in 1990, Catholics and Jews meeting in our official International Liaison Committee, said that “Anti-Semitism is a sin against God and humanity.” We urged that everywhere the same message be sent out. The first episcopate to heed our call was that in Poland, under the leadership of Cardinal Josef Glemp. Two months later Pope John Paul II quoted this passage and it became, thereby, not simply a statement of an international committee, but a position affirmed in the ordinary teaching of the Church.

When I was in Brazil two years ago, I was able to make the point at a meeting in Sao Paulo attended by Cardinal Hummes at the largest synagogue of the country, and later at a meeting of Catholics and Jews in Sao Salvador da Bahia, the home of my good friend Cardinal Agnelo, with whom I was staying.

Incidentally, at his first general audience following his return to Rome, on May 31, Pope Benedict said, “May modern humanity not forget Auschwitz and the other ‘factories of death’ where the Nazi regime attempted to eliminate God in order to take his place. May it not give in to the temptation of racial hatred, which is the origin of the worst form of anti-Semitism.”

I want to salute the Jewish community for its generosity in taking part in the massive effort we together made to call attention to the genocide in Darfur. We must never permit such a catastrophe to occur.

Allow me a word about the present situation involving Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. In l989, the year I was assigned to Baltimore, I served with Cardinal O’Connor of New York and then Archbishop (now Cardinal) Mahony of Los Angeles, on a committee charged with writing a document we entitled, Toward Peace in the Middle East. We completed our work here in Baltimore, where the Bishops met that year to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of the first Catholic diocese here.

We looked to a two-state solution, where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians would live side by side. Since then, we have experienced moments of hope, the Camp David accord, the recognition of Israel by the Holy See, and moments of sadness, the murder of Ytzak Rabin and, more recently, the tragedy of terrorism, together with, from the Palestinian point of view, harsh measures such as the separation wall. We may see violence suggested as the only solution.

But I recall what Pope John Paul II said at the interreligious service in Jerusalem: “If the various religious communities in the Holy City and in the Holy Land succeed in living and working together in friendship and harmony, this will be of enormous benefit not only to themselves but to the whole cause of peace in this region. Then we will all repeat the words of the Prophet: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ (Is 2:3).

In 1998 we had a most unusual pilgrimage to Israel: 7 rabbis, with Rabbi Zaiman of Baltimore the leader with me, 6 bishops, 2 priests, and 2 laymen, one Jewish and one Catholic. We said beforehand that we would spend half our time at Jewish sites and half at Christian places of interest, so that the trip was a continuing dialogue. As to worship, we did not discuss this beforehand, but soon enough a pattern emerged, and the rabbis came to our Mass each day, saw at first hand similarities to the Jewish worship, from which ours had evolved, even as we saw the same. Our Mass was daily and lasted about half an hour, but the two synagogue services, one on the Sabbath and one on the feast of Purim, when Queen Esther was especially remembered, ran much longer and, in the end, we felt that a balance had been achieved.

At the end, I wish to return to the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Israel. In the course of his visit, he met privately with the two chief rabbis. Dr. Eugene Fisher, our expert on Jewish matters at the Bishops’ Conference, has said, “The grandparents of the participants would not dare believe that such a thing could happen.” But it did, and they spoke comfortably, in a heart-to-heart dialogue that is a model for us today.

I close with words that bind our faith communities together, words familiar to Jewish believers and words recited by every Catholic priest as part of Night Prayer on Saturday: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.”

Thank you. God bless you.