ROME (Sep. 3)
Pope John Paul II has often met with Jewish groups, but this week marked the first time that he received a delegation from the United Jewish Appeal.
In a half-hour private audience Thursday, the UJA mission from Chicago thanked the pope for his work in furthering Jewish-Catholic relations and encouraged him to visit Israel soon.
But they did not raise any issues clouding Jewish-Catholic relations, such as the ongoing tensions over the erection of crosses near the Auschwitz death camp by Polish Catholic fundamentalists.
The pontiff called the meeting, which took place at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, “another step in the direction of strengthening the spirit of understanding between Jews and Catholics.”
“For the good of the human family, it is crucial at this time that all believers work together to build structures of genuine peace,” he added.
The delegation included some 20 members of the UJA’s Chicago Prime Minister’s Mission, headed by Steve Barnett, chairman of the 1999 campaign of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
Participants called the meeting “personal and special” — but they observed that the pontiff appeared frail.
Carole Solomon, UJA national campaign chairman, flew from New York for the audience.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” she told JTA. “Very moving.”
She termed the meeting “historic” in that it “recognized the validity and power” of what the UJA represents.
In his remarks to the pope, Barnett emphasized that in Chicago, which has a large Catholic population, “the cultivation of positive relations between Catholics and Jews is held in especially high regard.
“Together, our two communities strive to look honestly at the past and to forge fruitful relations based on mutual understanding and respect,” he said.
“These are goals which we know have been the hallmark of your leadership. We are grateful for your commitment to healing wounds from the past and for reaching out to the Jewish people as you have,” he said.
The pope has made clear that he wants to visit the Holy Land before or during the year 2000, when Christianity celebrates its millennium.
Encouraging him to make the trip, Barnett said such a visit would be a “historic event of profound meaning to both of our peoples and to the entire world.”
During their four-day visit to Italy, the UJA group also met with representatives of the Rome Jewish community, Italian government officials and Rome’s mayor.