In a letter read aloud throughout Poland during Sunday Mass, leaders of the Polish Roman Catholic church have asked for forgiveness for the church’s tolerating anti-Semitism and for other religious discrimination by Polish Catholics.
The soul-searching, five-part letter was issued last Friday by Polish bishops as part of the Church’s Millennium Holy Year agenda of self-examination, apology and penitence for past sins.
The letter is being seen as going further than an apology issued by the Polish church in 1991 by acknowledging that during the Shoah some Poles were guilty of indifference and of enmity toward Jews.
The letter, which calls anti-Semitism as well as “anti-Christian attitudes” a sin and criticizes the behavior of some Poles during the Holocaust, also admits that Catholic anti-Semitism still exists.
“We want to express the value of the presence of Judaism in Polish history and of the coexistence between Christians and Jews,” Bishop Jozef Zyczynski of Lublin, said in an interview with the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.
In admitting sins committed by Polish Catholics during the Holocaust, he said, “We wanted to recall that there was indifference regarding the fate of people who were suffering deeply. And we suffer because of that now. We don’t want simply to identify historical motives, but to open the way and the possibility for new relations between Jews and Christians.”
He said the church in Lublin was organizing follow-up events, including one in which Lublin’s Catholic University will grant an honorary doctorate to Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff.
The bishops’ letter asks for “forgiveness for the attitude of those among us who have disdained persons of other denominations or have tolerated anti- Semitism.”
It notes that the Holocaust, while carried out by the Germans, was mainly implemented on German-occupied Polish soil.
In the spirit of Holy Year penitence, it says, “we must realize that along with noble efforts by Poles to rescue many Jewish lives, there are also our sins from that period: indifference or enmity towards Jews.
“Everything must be done to rebuild and deepen Christian solidarity with the people of Israel so that never and nowhere can a similar tragedy happen again,” it says.
It says that it is necessary to overcome all expressions of “anti-Jewishness, anti-Judaism (animosity stemming from wrong interpretations of Church teachings), and anti-Semitism (hatred based on nationalistic or racial motives) that existed and still exist among Christians.”
But, it notes, “We expect that anti-Polonism will be fought with equal determination.”
“This is an important new step by the Polish Church in the slow process of beginning to approach the reality of anti-Semitism,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish Jewish leader who has long been active in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
“This will make easier the attempts to face shameful events, like postwar pogroms and the killings of Jews by Poles during World War II,” said Krajewski, who is the Warsaw consultant for the American Jewish Committee.
Nonetheless, Krajewski said that while the condemnation of anti-Semitism as a sin was “very clear,” he felt it a “pity” that anti-Christian attitudes are labeled in the same way “because the consequences of the two have been incomparable.”