VATICAN CITY – As Pope Benedict XVI prepared to visit Israel in early May, Jewish leaders involved in dialogue appeared to be hopeful and not particularly wary about what the pope would say.
On the other hand, many members of the Jewish community and Catholics sensitive to their feelings appeared to be holding their breath, praying that the pope would not inadvertently offend his hosts.
The difference stems from the fact that Jewish leaders know Pope Benedict’s teaching about Jews and Judaism from his theological speeches and articles.
Speaking in Rome in March, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the U.S.-born chief rabbi of Poland, said the Holy Land trip can be “very enlightening and help Pope Benedict show in a very clear way” the sensitivity and respect that has been clear in his writings for decades.
In evaluating the pope’s work, Jewish leaders appreciate several facts: Pope Benedict explicitly recognizes that God chose the Jewish people as his own and established a special bond with them; he recognizes that for centuries Christians used Jesus’ death as an excuse to denigrate – and even persecute – the Jews; and he understands that the contempt some Christians had for the Jews created an atmosphere that the Nazis easily and progressively manipulated to the point of killing 6 million Jews.
But theological work does not grab the headlines the way gestures do and a Vatican explanation of a papal misstep may limit the damage, but it is hard to eliminate all suspicion.
Those who are worried can’t seem to shake their puzzlement over the fact that in January the pope lifted the excommunication of a bishop who minimized the Holocaust.
The Vatican later made it clear that Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of St. Pius X, who had denied the extent of the Holocaust, must publicly recant his views if he wants to function as a bishop in the Catholic Church.
Writing to the world’s bishops in March, Pope Benedict said he was saddened that people seemed to jump to the conclusion that he was stepping back from efforts to promote reconciliation between Catholics and Jews and was rejecting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
“Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust,” the pope wrote after emphasizing the horror of the Holocaust and the importance of remembering it.
The papal apology was effective with the church’s Jewish dialogue partners because they were able to put the issue into the perspective of what they knew about the German-born pope’s thinking, especially from what he had published as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The day the Vatican released the pope’s apologetic letter, Pope Benedict met with a delegation from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa, told the pope, “We thank the Holy See for making this renewal (of dialogue) possible by the clear and unequivocal statements deploring the Holocaust denial and making it very clear that the Catholic Church leaders are committed” to continue working for improved relations with the Jews.
In his remarks to the rabbis, the pope reaffirmed in summary form his understanding of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that make respect, dialogue and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews possible.
“The church recognizes that the beginnings of her faith are found in the historical divine intervention in the life of the Jewish people and that here our unique relationship has its foundation,” he said.
“The Jewish people, who were chosen as the elected people, communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, unique and true God,” the pope said.
The teachings are the same as those meticulously spelled out by then-Cardinal Ratzinger during a speech to a major international Catholic-Jewish conference in Jerusalem in 1994.
The speech – widely republished and included in Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, “Many Religions, One Covenant” – is such a clear synthesis of his thinking about Jews and Judaism that Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, included the full text in background materials for Vatican Radio reporters covering the trip.
The future pope began with an acknowledgment: “The history of the relationship between Israel and Christendom is drenched with blood and tears. It is a history of mistrust and hostility, but also – praise be to God – a history marked again and again by attempts at forgiveness, understanding and mutual acceptance.”
The Holocaust, he said, was not simply a horror to be remembered, but it is a demand on humanity – especially on believers in the one God – to engage in a mission of reconciliation and mutual acceptance.
But respect for the Jewish people and their ongoing special relationship with God does not and cannot mean that the pope will not speak about the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ as he visits the land of the savior’s birth, life, death and resurrection.
The pope is well aware, however, that for centuries Christians blamed the Jews, rather than human sinfulness, for Jesus’ death and that attitude was at the root of the so-called “teaching of contempt.”
It was a central topic in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1994 speech.
Even as a child growing up in Germany, he told his audience, “I could not understand how some people wanted to derive a condemnation of Jews from the death of Jesus because the following thought had penetrated my soul as something profoundly consoling: Jesus’ blood raises no calls for retaliation, but calls all to reconciliation.”
In the Bible, he said, “there are not two effects of the cross – a damning one and a saving one – but only a single effect, which is saving and reconciling.”