Jewish Leaders to Meet with Pope for the First Time in Three Years

Jewish leaders are scheduled to meet with Pope John Paul II and other Vatican officials in November, to commemorate and build on the historic statements made in the 1965 church document “Nostra Aetate.”

It will be the first meeting between the pope and official representatives of world Jewry since September 1987, when Jews were still smarting from the pope’s meeting three months earlier with Kurt Waldheim. Until then, the Austrian president had been shunned by world leaders because of revelations about his Nazi past.

While the Vatican and IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, have agreed in principle to the November meeting, the details and schedule have yet to be confirmed.

IJCIC is the umbrella group recognized by the Vatican to represent world Jewry in Catholic-Jewish negotiations. Its members include B’nai B’rith International, the Israel Interfaith Committee, the Synagogue Council of America and the World Jewish Congress.

The meeting, slated to take place in Rome on Nov. 14 and 15, is being viewed as a chance to flesh out a six-point plan worked out at a meeting of Catholic and Jewish officials in Prague earlier this month.

At that conference, Catholic leaders referred to anti-Semitism fostered or condoned by the church as a sin and asked for forgiveness by the Jewish people. The two groups created a plan to discourage anti-Semitism, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe.

Some 20 Jewish leaders will be attending the two days of private and public meetings in Rome, according to Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Synagogue Council of America’s Interreligious Affairs Committee.

‘SUCCESSES AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES’

Topics slated for discussion at the Rome gathering include “Future Developments in Catholic-Jewish Relations” and “The Meaning of Nostra Aetate,” according to Seymour Reich of B’nai B’rith, who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of IJCIC.

IJCIC will meet with the pope on the second day of the conference.

“The purpose of the November meeting is to determine the successes and missed opportunities of the last 25 years,” said Reich. “We’re very concerned that church teachings are not reaching the parish and that recent manifestations of anti-Semitism are getting out of control.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, hopes the Rome meeting proves to be “a continuation of the spirit of Prague. We will be tackling difficult issues, and hope to refine our differences,” he said.

While the WJC has not always supported meetings with Vatican officials, some of which Steinberg considered to be “papering over legitimate differences,” it is viewing the Rome meeting as a positive step.

High on the list of issues to be discussed will be the Vatican’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

According to Reich, the Vatican says that recognition of Israel is a political matter, one that can only be resolved with Israel itself.

Still, the issue of Israel will be an important one in the upcoming meeting, he said. “It is essential for them to understand that Israel is central to our concerns.”

“In the moral equation, the Vatican needs Israel more than Israel needs the Vatican,” Reich pointed out. “For the Vatican to express itself on the peace process is a non sequitur until it establishes full diplomatic relations with Israel–otherwise its pronouncements are made in a vacuum,” he said.

A NEW STATEMENT ON ANTI-SEMITISM

The meeting with the pope in Rome is considered by IJCIC participants to be the latest positive step in the evolving relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

“This next stage becomes important,” said Gunther Lawrence, director of development and public information for the Synagogue Council.

“We’re beginning to build the same strong relationships on the international scene that we have on the American Catholic-Jewish scene,” he said, referring to the dialogues that have frequently been conducted across the United States.

A long-term goal of the meeting, according to Bemporad of the Synagogue Council, is to work toward another statement by the Vatican on anti-Semitism and its relationship to the Jewish people.

That statement will be “a careful study and reflection by the church on Catholic history, including on its doctrines of deicide and contempt for Jews, which were reversed in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council,” Bemporad said.

“Prague was the first step in a course that we’re charting,” he said, “and we’re hoping that the Rome meeting will be a further investigation of those areas in which we need to work together, and in which the church needs to work on its own, to do away with anti-Semitism.”

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