Jewish Delegation Gathers in Rome

A Jewish delegation arrived here over the weekend for historic meetings with high-ranking Vatican officials and, on Tuesday, a meeting with Pope John Paul II which is being touted as an unprecedented open dialogue instead of the traditional formal presentations followed by a papal response.

Tuesday’s meeting is expected to be the first known instance in the Vatican’s 2,000-year history that the Pontiff, the spiritual leader of close to 900 million Catholics and the head of a sovereign state, will take part in a free discussion based on give and take.

The discussion this week will also be the first in which the Vatican will delegate an official with political and diplomatic responsibility to such a meeting. Msgr. Luigi Gatti, a representative of the Vatican’s political branch, will participate in the Vatican’s delegation to the meetings.

Previously, the Jewish-Catholic dialogue which began in 1965 consisted of rare meetings between Jewish representatives and the Pope in which the Jews made formal presentations and an address and the Pope responded. Progress was noted by one Jewish delegate who recalled that not long ago, in historical terms, Jewish representatives had to Kneel when received at the Vatican. But the Catholic-Jewish dialogue has come a long way as the 10-member delegation representing the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) prepares to confer Monday with senior Vatican officials and Tuesday with Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and later with the Pope at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

Both sides have indicated they hope the meetings will, at the very least, defuse existing tensions and hopefully open a new chapter in Jewish-Catholic relations. Tuesday’s meeting with the Pope is expected to result in a joint declaration condemning anti-Semitism, recalling the horrors of the Holocaust and paving the way for a new type of relationship. Both sides stressed privately that they want to avoid confrontations and recriminations.

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of IJCIC, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “The meetings will not be a confrontation. What we want is to lessen existing tensions, resolve misunderstandings and explain our stand for the sake of better Catholic-Jewish Relations.”

One member of the Jewish delegation, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, American Jewish Committee director for international relations, said he received word from the Vatican last week that the Pope wanted the meeting to be informal, frank and honest with no formal presentations but an atmosphere of give and take.

FIRST POINT ON THE AGENDA

The delegation decided Sunday on a four-point agenda for Monday’s meeting which will encompass most of the Jewish grievances against the Vatican’s latest steps and declarations but also provide for a better understanding in the future.

Waxman said the first point on the agenda will be the issue of recent revisionist tendencies within the Catholic Church which reached a climax with the Pope’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim last June. “The Waldheim case,” said Waxman, “is symbolic of what we see as a dangerous trend. It signifies a certain forgetfulness of the past, a possible temptation to erase the monstrosity which was the Holocaust and to minimize the martyrdom of the Jewish people.”

In the past, the Vatican had carefully tried to separate what it termed the religious from the political issues and formally, at least, tried to restrict its dialogue with the Jewish representatives to “moral, religious and theological issues.”

The Vatican issued a press release Friday saying the working session Monday will focus on “fundamental topics of the interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and Jews.” Some saw this as an attempt to confine the dialogue to religious issues to the exclusion of political topics like Vatican diplomatic relations with Israel, one of the four main topics on the Jewish delegation’s agenda for the meetings.

The delegation’s arrival in Rome was preceded by weeks of haggling over who would represent the Jewish community in the meetings. The delegation included two non-American representatives, Dr. Gerhart Riegner of Geneva, co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress Governing Board, and Geoffrey Wigoder of Israel representing the Israel Interfaith Committee.

Italian and West European Jewish leaders privately expressed deep disappointment for what they see as their exclusion from the meetings.

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