French Catholic Leaders Upset, Surprised by Waldheim Meeting, Especially in Light of Pope’s Record
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French Catholic Leaders Upset, Surprised by Waldheim Meeting, Especially in Light of Pope’s Record

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Albert Cardinal DeCourtray, the ranking Roman Catholic prelate in France, said Wednesday that he was pained by the audience granted Austrian President Kurt Waldheim by Pope John Paul II and failed to understand the rationale. He said he spoke for all French bishops.

DeCourtray, who as Primate of Gaul is considered the head of the Catholic Church in France, said the meeting to take place at the Vatican Thursday “shows a total misperception of Jewish sensibility.”

He made his statement after visiting a temporary Holocaust memorial erected by the Jewish community of Lyon for the duration of the trial there of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. DeCourtray, who was accompanied by the Chief Rabbi of Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag, said: “Maybe I personally have a good perception of Jewish feelings because of my close relations with the Jewish community. I do not feel, however, that the meeting, though it will leave a scar, will adversely affect the rapprochement between Catholics and Jews for which we have labored these last few years.” He added, “The Pope is certainly totally above any suspicion.” Nevertheless, the Cardinal said he will convey to the Vatican the many letters of protest he has received from the French Jewish community “and I shall certainly add my own comments.”


He said, “I know that Cardinal (Jean-Marie) Lustiger (the Archbishop of Paris) and other Catholic bishops share my own feelings on this subject. I am spontaneously expressing their sentiments.”

DeCourtray has been active in negotiations leading to an agreement not to establish a Carmelite convent at the site of the Auschwitz death camp, ground hallowed by the memory of the Jews who perished there. He has also worked to improve relations between Catholics and Jews in France.

When he said he “felt a certain pain” on learning that the Pope planned to receive Waldheim and that he couldn’t understand the rationale, he seemed to be expressing the astonishment of Catholics and Jews over the decision by a Pope who has given his personal blessing to Catholic Jewish reconciliation.

The Pope’s visit to the main synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986 was seen as a turning point in the ambivalent relations between the two religions. He used the occasion to condemn anti-Semitism and paid tribute to the Jewish people as “our beloved brothers.”

Catholic sources said the Pope himself urged the Catholic delegation to find a mutually satisfactory solution to the Carmelite convent controversy. It was eventually decided to dismantle the convent out of respect to Jewish martyrdom during the Holocaust.

During his trip to West Germany earlier this year, the Pontiff went out of his way to condemn Nazism and anti-Semitism in the strongest language. Last month, on a visit to his native Poland, he visited the site of the Maidenek concentration camp where he spoke of the persecution suffered by Polish Jewry and assured a delegation of survivors of his “special fraternity” with them.

It was shortly after his return to Rome that the Waldheim visit was announced.

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