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Jews and Catholics in Poland Pray for Better Interfaith Ties

Leading Polish and American Catholics prayed for better relations between Christians and Jews at a mass held here Thursday at Poland’s holiest Catholic shrine.

The ceremony was attended by a delegation of 25 American Jewish and Catholic leaders who made a four-day trip to Poland this week in an effort to put an end to the strains that have characterized Polish-Jewish relations in the past.

The delegation came, at the invitation of the Polish Episcopate, for talks with Polish leaders on interreligious initiatives and Polish-Jewish ties.

The mass in the ornate chapel of the Black Madonna icon at Jasna Gora monastery here was led by Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore, who, along with Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Lawrence, N.Y., headed the U.S. interfaith delegation.

The delegation also included representatives of the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinals John O’Connor of New York and Bernard Law of Boston.

It was considered the highest-level delegation of American Jews and Catholics to visit here.

The trip was coordinated by the newly established Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. The center is dedicated to furthering theological dialogue between the two faiths and toward developing a spirit of cooperation on social issues.

During the mass at the Black Madonna chapel, Keeler offered a special prayer “for dialogue and reconciliation between Jews and Christians.”

‘OUR OLDER BROTHERS’

Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, head of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission on Catholic-Jewish Relations, echoed this prayer in a longer address to the congregation.

He welcomed the “brothers of the American Episcopate” and the delegates of “our older brothers” — the term used by Pope John Paul II to refer to Jews.

He observed that the group came to Czestochowa after praying together the day before at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and visiting the new interreligious study center being built near Auschwitz.

“At Auschwitz, we tried to say yes to life and yes to God,” he said. “Here, at this place, we have a special obligation — that we belong to God to continue his goodness, love and friendship among peoples.”

Jewish and Catholic members of the delegation said the service was one of the most important moments of the group’s visit to Poland.

Muszynski said that it was very important for the Polish people that the Jewish group had visited and attended a prayer service at the holiest place in Poland for Catholics.

“You can’t understand Poland without Czestochowa,” Muszynski said. “It was important to come here, to show Jews coming with Catholics to Czestochowa. It will have a very big impact in Poland.”

A day earlier, after an emotional memorial ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the American delegation inspected the site of the interreligious study center being built nearby to replace the controversial convent occupied by Carmelite nuns at the edge of the death camp site.

Bemporad, one of the leaders of the delegation, said he recognized the commitment to finish construction of the convent complex despite financial problems and other delays.

He pledged cooperation and full support for the Auschwitz center from the new Sacred Heart interreligious center.

LACK OF FUNDS CITED

The Auschwitz interfaith center is nearly complete and has already hosted some meetings. But the convent itself is a only a rough brick shell. Local officials said it should be completed by the end of this year.

“It is clear that they are doing everything they can to get the convent building built,” Bemporad said. “We are delighted that they have made the commitment.

“They are fully aware of the sensitivities of the worldwide Jewish community on this issue, and they themselves are trying to find a way to finish it,” he said.

Rev. Marek Glownia, director of the Auschwitz center, told the group that work on the new convent had been held up by lack of money.

“Given the economic and political realities of contemporary Poland, it is clear that they have made great advances in the construction,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at AJCommittee and a member of the visiting delegation.

“It’s an enormous project,” he said, adding: “We urged them to press forward to finish it as soon as possible.”

Bemporad said that the Sacred Heart center had invited the president and vice president of the Auschwitz center to be on its board and that exploratory talks were under way aimed at establishing a formal relationship between the two interreligious centers.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. delegation, accompanied by Archbishop Muszynski and other members of the Polish clergy, spent five hours at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The event culminated in an emotion-charged interfaith memorial ceremony in front of the ruins of the Birkenau crematoria.

During the ceremony, members of the delegation — Catholic and Jewish alike — stepped forward to make personal statements.

RAW EMOTIONS AT AUSCHWITZ

Holocaust survivor Michael Menkin of Fort Lee, N.J., whose wife, also in the delegation, was a survivor of Auschwitz, urged that Holocaust victims be thought of as individuals.

“I want you to look instead at the dress of a little girl, the shoes of a baby,” he said, tears choking his voice.

“This is a life. This was a life. This little baby had a father and a mother and a brother and an uncle. She went with her mother to the crematorium. One person. One little child.

“Think of one case. Because there were millions. And this impression should remain with you,” said Menkin.

He underscored the point that the witnesses and victims who managed to survive the Holocaust were dying out and that it would be the duty of those present to pass on the memory of what had happened there.

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