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An Historic Meeting

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An international Jewish delegation met Tuesday for over one hour with Pope John Paul II for what a member of the delegation described as “a historic meeting which would have been inconceivable to previous generations.”

The Pontiff and the nine Jewish representatives discussed all the issues which have been troubling Jewish communities throughout the world, including the Waldheim affair, relations with Israel and recent revisionist trends in western Europe.

Although the Pope did not respond directly to all the subjects according to one of the participants, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, he “listened carefully and patiently and responded in general terms.”


The Pope also approved the three decisions reached by the delegation in its meetings Tuesday morning with Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and during its negotiations with high ranking church officials Monday.

The elaboration and the release of a Church declaration explaining its stand on the Holocaust, its condemnation of revisionist tendencies and tracing the roots of anti-Semitism. The Pope praised this decision and said he hoped it will have important consequences. The Pope also reminded the delegation that Tuesday, Sept. I, was the 48th anniversary of Poland’s invasion by Nazi Germany: “I know what a tragedy this meant. It is fitting we meet today.”

Providing for a mechanism which would enable the Catholic Church and the Jewish community to keep in closer contact so as to prevent such “surprises” as the Pope’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, his invitation to Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and the beatification of Edith Stein. This mechanism will also provide for regular meetings between representatives of the Jewish community and the Vatican State Secretary.

Access to the Pope “whenever the need arises” for further frank discussions.


All the nine Jewish representatives seemed emotionally moved as they left the Papal palace. Rabbi Henry Siegman of the American Jewish Congress said after the meeting, “it was a historic and moving occasion. It is the first time in history that the head of the Catholic Church engaged in a general conversation with members of the Jewish community, something which would have been inconceivable to earlier generations.”

Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, said the meeting with the Pope “makes new relationships with the Catholics now possible.”

Tanenbaum, director of International Relations of the American Jewish Committee and one of the veterans of Jewish contacts with the Vatican, said after the meeting, that the Pope responded to all the issues raised though not always directly and more in a generalized sort of way.

About Israel, the Pope responded, according to Tanenbaum, “in careful and even circumspect words, he did not want to go beyond the official Catholic church’s known position.”

Klaperman, who raised the issue once again towards the end of the meeting said the Pope, who had visited Jerusalem as a Bishop of Cracow some 15 years ago, said he “would like to revisit it.” The delegation assured him he would be warmly welcomed.

The Pope also went out of his way to stress his deep understanding of the role Israel played in the consciousness and sentiments of the Jewish people. Tanenbaum said the Pope spoke with what seemed like personal affection about the Jewish State.


The delegation had what some Jewish delegates described as “a strong conversation” on this subject earlier in the day with Casaroli. The nine Jewish representatives and the Pope started their historic meeting by reciting in turn, in Hebrew and in Latin, a psalm in front of an open Bible.

Both Jewish and Catholic spokesmen said this joint reading was meant to symbolize their joint heritage. As if to further stress the informal nature of the meeting, the Pope sat apart but on the same level with the other participants.

The long awaited meeting, which many hope will mark a turning point in the often tortuous relations between Jews and Roman Catholics, took place in the Pope’s summer residence, a 17th century palace 20 miles south of Rome.


The nine Jewish representatives and six high ranking Catholic officials arrived together aboard a cavalcade of Vatican limousines. The Swiss guards, in their yellow uniforms with blue and red stripes, raised their lances, a traditional gesture of welcome, and Vatican officials greeted them at the gate.

The delegates were introduced into one of the Pope’s private rooms on the fourth floor of the palace. The 15, nine Jews and six Catholics, sat in a semi-circle facing a throne from which the dais had been removed. Between the two lay an open Bible on a low table.


The Pope, dressed in his usual white robes and a red skullcap, entered the room at exactly 12 noon. He moved slowly along the line of Jewish delegates shaking hands and greeting each one of them starting with Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), who headed the delegation.

The formal and at times emotion-laden atmosphere was broken by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. As the Pope walked up to him Schindler said “my only claim to fame lasts from your visit to New York (in 1979). I was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and held up a little boy saying: ‘Remember for the rest of your life that it was a rabbi who helped you see the Pope’.” Vatican spokesperson Juaquim Navarro who was present told reporters that the Pope burst out laughing dispelling the tension in the room.

The conversation took place in English which, some of the participants said, “is obviously not the Pope’s main language.” The Pontiff replied generally to several of the delegates but often after a short pause as if trying to better formulate his words. To a certain extent this turned the otherwise free and frank conversation into somewhat of “a dialogue on the Jewish side and a monologue on the part of the Pope,” some participants said.


The Pontiff showed, however, a definite understanding for Jewish worries and preoccupations. He indicated that he intends to use his Miami Sept. 11 meeting with representatives of the Jewish community for “a substantial statement and not a formal address,” in the words of one of the participants. Most of the participants were convinced that the Miami meeting will be a huge success.

After the one-hour-and-five minute formal meeting, the delegates and the Pontiff spent another 10 minutes in what was described as “a friendly exchange.” Tanenbaum told him that Polish friends who remember the Pope from his Cracow days had assured him that John Paul II “was the best Polish bishop with whom the Jews had ever to deal.” The Pope, known for his continued contacts with his native country, seemed pleased.


The Pope concluded the meeting by citing the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt as continuing source of hope. He also expressed his conviction that “with the Lord’s help, evil can be overcome and even the awesome evil of the Shoah overcome and somewhat repaired.”

Earlier the delegation conferred with Cardinal Casaroli, the second highest ranking Vatican official. Tanenbaum later said that Casaroli “agreed to meet with us again as the opportunities demand to prevent further surprises from taking place, such as the Pope’s meeting with Waldheim, his invitation to Arafat and the canonization of Edith Stein. Such contacts would prevent Jewish-Catholic relations from being shocked and disturbed. Such consultations would also help the church understand what is happening in the Jewish community.”

Tanenbaum added “obviously we shall also have access to the Pope if and when circumstances warrant it.”


The two delegations issued a joint communique reiterating their decisions and expressing the hope for a future better understanding.

At a joint press conference, Bishop William Keeler, Bishop of Harrisburg and chairman of the American Bishop’s Conference for Inter-religious Affairs, said that Jews and Catholics will work together in elaborating and drafting the Vatican document on the Holocaust and the roots of anti-Semitism.

Keeler said American Catholics “need such a document as much as our Jewish brethren.” Waxman explained that the Jewish delegation has expressed its shock and outrage over the Waldheim affair and the Vatican expressed its own reasons for the meeting.

He concluded: “Now that we have all made our position clear it is time we move forward.”

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