Behind the Headlines: Pope Puts Relations with Jews at Top of His Ecumenical Agenda

Pope John Paul II has put Catholic-Jewish relations high on his ecumenical agenda, moving on theological and diplomatic fronts to strengthen ties between the Vatican and Israel and to stress the shared history between the two faiths.

In recent interviews and public statements, the Holy See has described Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith,” and anti-Semitism as “anti-Christian.”

As spiritual leader of nearly 1 billion Catholics for more than 15 years, he has built on the foundations laid down by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and has continued to pursue what many say is his own long-held personal commitment to improving relations between Catholics and Jews.

But it is the pope’s recent recognition of the right of Jews to settle in Israel that has defined the recent sea change in Catholic-Jewish relations.

“It must be understood that Jews, who for 2,000 years have been dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right,” said the 73-year-old leader in an interview with Parade magazine, an American mass-circulation weekly.

These comments, published in the magazine’s Easter edition, follow the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican last December, a move which was pushed forward by the pope himself.

Under his leadership, the Vatican has also dropped its insistence that Jerusalem be declared an international city, tacitly accepting a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.

And for the first time, the pope has sponsored the first official Vatican commemoration of the Holocaust. An international concert attended by dignitaries from around the world was scheduled for Yom Hashoah, April 7.

MANY BELLEVE STUMBLING BLOCK GONE

According to many observers, formal recognition of Israel removed what had been a major stumbling block to Catholic-Jewish relations, clearing the way for the kind of overtures that the pope continues to set in motion.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said recent statements reflect a position that has been building since the pope’s election in 1978.

These efforts, Rudin said, are an attempt to craft an enlightened notion among Catholics of the real historical relationship between the two groups.

“He’s not talking to Jews about the Jewish religion; he’s speaking to Catholics,” Rudin said.

In 1979, the Pope returned to his native Poland to visit Auschwitz, where he knelt before a Hebrew inscription to pray for the victims of the Nazi concentration camp.

He became the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship when, in 1986, he gave an address at the Rome synagogue.

Last April, the pope ordered a group of Carmelite nuns to leave their convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, following ongoing charges from Jews that their presence was a religious desecration and defusing what was thought to be a potentially explosive situation.

And throughout his travels, the pope has met with local Jewish communities and stressed his dedication to Jewish concerns.

Since establishing ties with Israel, the Israeli government has invited John Paul II to visit the country and he has announced his desire to do so.

These grand diplomatic gestures are meant to filter down through the Catholic hicrarchy into Catholic schools and seminaries, where images of Jews and Jewish history are cast.

It was the Second Vatican Council that set the tone for a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. The council ruled that Jews could no longer be referred to as “Christ-killers” and anti-Semitic statements had to be erased from Catholic liturgy.

Since then, Jewish groups have worked to help implement programs in the United States and abroad that educate Catholics on Jewish history, values and religious beliefs.

Observers admit that it will take some time for the messages of the Catholic leadership to filter down to general attitudes and behavior.

Many also recognize that some Jews are reluctant to change notions about Christianity built over centuries of hostile relations.

Brother William Martin, director of the ecumenical and religious affairs commission of the Archdiocese of New York, said that despite a perception among Jews that the pope, being Polish, is anti-Semitic, it is actually his Polish upbringing that helped shape his affinity for Jews.

CHILDHOOD FRIENDS WERE JEWS

In the recent Parade interview, the pope described his childhood in the Polish town of Wadowice, where he went to school with Jewish children and had many close Jewish friends.

While in his early 20s, he watched as Jews and others were rounded up by the Nazis for deportation, an event which helped shape his commitment to working with the Jewish people.

The pope’s outspoken dedication to Catholic-Jewish relations has been met with high praise from most of the organized Jewish community, which welcomed diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel.

But Leon Feldman, secretary of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said that relations with the Vatican must be seen through more than one lens. IJCIC is the umbrella organization which works with Christian denominations on issues of common concern.

“On the one hand they are a religious force, on the other hand they are a political force,” said Feldman. He added that the Vatican has made repeated calls for free access to holy places in Jerusalem in order to maintain a hand in the bargaining process between Arabs and Jews.

Of particular concern to the Vatican are the Catholics living as minorities in Arab countries.

Feldman said that despite recent advances, it will be years before the pope’s overtures “trickle down” to average Catholics and Jews. He said memories of the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust still haunt many Jews. Under Pope Pius XII, the Vatican failed to react to the slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

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