BUDAPEST, June 9 (JTA) — Following what they termed a warm and friendly Vatican audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Jewish leaders are expressing conviction that Jewish-Catholic relations will broaden and deepen under his pontificate. “After this meeting, we are confident that under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church will continue to build upon its growing relations with the Jewish community,” World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman said in a statement after the audience Thursday. The WJC’s chairman, Rabbi Israel Singer, added that the church and the Jewish community would cooperate on joint humanitarian initiatives, including “much-needed relief and education aid to Africa, a continent suffering from the plague of AIDS.” The meeting between the pope and a 25-member delegation from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, was Benedict’s first official audience with international representatives of another faith community. Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious relations, called the encounter “remarkably warm and the most informal private papal audience I have ever attended.” Participants included representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements; leaders from Israel, North America, Europe and Latin America; the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International. Benedict, who had met many members of the delegation when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, greeted them as old friends and spoke with them individually about a variety of specific issues. Singer said that he and Bronfman also had a private meeting with the pope in which they briefed him on this week’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit on anti-Semitism and discussed humanitarian projects. In his formal address to the group, Benedict reaffirmed his commitment to make Jewish-Catholic relations a prominent part of his agenda. He noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a landmark declaration by the Second Vatican Council that opened the door to formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue. That declaration, he said, affirmed the church’s conviction that “the beginnings of her faith are already to be found in Abraham, Moses and the prophets.” It also “called for greater mutual understanding and esteem between Christians and Jews and deplored all manifestations of hatred, persecution and anti-Semitism,” he said. “At the very beginning of my pontificate,” he said, “I wish to assure you that the church remains firmly committed, in her catechesis and in every aspect of her life, to implementing this decisive teaching.” Benedict noted that the history of relations between Jews and Catholics has been “complex and often painful,” but he stressed that “remembrance of the past remains for both communities a moral imperative.” That imperative, he said, “must include a continued reflection on the profound historical, moral and theological questions presented by the experience of the Shoah.” The German-born Benedict, 78, was elected to the papacy April 19 following the death of Pope John Paul II. The Polish-born John Paul made fostering Jewish-Catholic relations a pillar of his policy. Both popes clearly felt that “the burden of history rests on their shoulders,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. It was significant, he said, that at a time when a lot of people “wish the Jewish community would shut up about the past, here is a pope who says that it is a sacred obligation to remember the past and learn from it.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.