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Israeli, Jewish Leaders Express Sorrow at the Death of Pope Paul Vi

August 8, 1978
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Israeli officials and Jewish leaders in the United States today extended their condolences to Catholics throughout the world upon the death of Pope Paul VI. The head of the Roman Catholic Church died yesterday at the age of 80 after a heart attack in his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

Israeli leaders, including President Yitzhak Navon, Premier Menachem Begin and Minister of Religion Aharon Abu-Hatzeira, sent condolence cables to the Vatican this morning. In a statement released today, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren said of the Pope, “He tried to remove the chronic hatred between Christianity and Judaism.”

Prominent spokesmen for the American Jewish community responded similarly to news of the Pontiff’s death. Theodore R. Mann, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, communicated his condolences to the Catholic world. Rabbi Ely E. Pilchik, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella organization for Reform congregations, said “we extend our sympathetic hand to the distinguished clergy and world of Catholics in this great hour of mourning for His Holiness, Pope Paul VI. The great Father of the Church did so much in his endeavors to keep alive the hopes of peace for mankind.”

World Jewish Congress President Philip M. Klutznick, and the organization’s Secretary-General, Gerhart M. Riegner, noted that Pope Paul “will always be remembered by Jewish communities throughout the world as one of the architects of the improvement of Christian-Jewish relations so hopefully inaugurated by his predecessor and the Second Vatican Council. We are confident that the spirit he infused into this effort will continue into the future.”

Richard Maass, President of the American Jewish Committee, echoed these sentiments in observing that “It was during Pope Paul’s reign that major strides occurred in advancing understanding and mutual respect between Catholics and Jews. Pope Paul will also be remembered for his ardent advocacy of the cause of world peace, social justice and human rights to which the Jewish community is also dedicated.”


The message sent by officials of the Synagogue Council of America stated, in part: “We are particularly mindful of the impetus he (Pope Paul) gave to a continuation of the Catholic Church’s rapprochement with Judaism initiated by the late Pope John, and his personal encouragement and support of the Guidelines for the implementation of Nostra Aetate No. 4, a document that holds promise of a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations.” The message was signed by Rabbi Saul Teplitz, President of the Synagogue Council and Rabbi Henry Siegman, Executive Vice President.

David M. Blumberg, President of B’nai B’rith said “The Pontiff will be remembered as one who broadened the involvement of the Holy See to matters never before confronted by the Vatican. His sense of obligation to humanity was perhaps best embodied in his extensive travels to diverse parts of the world, including Israel, and his impassioned pleas for world peace before the United Nations.”

Burton M. Joseph, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said that Pope Paul carried out programs “for improving Jewish-Christian relations begun by Pope John XXIII. He will be remembered by the Jewish community for the establishment in 1974 by the Vatican of the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, and the Commission’s 1975 publication, the Guidelines on Catholic-Jewish Relations.”


A number of Jewish leaders praised Pope Paul’s key role in speaking out for peace in the Middle East. In recent years, the Pope made several nonpartisan appeals for peace. He consistently called for a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and supported the creation of “an internationally guaranteed status for Jerusalem and the holy places.”

In 1964, Pope Paul became the first Pontiff to journey to Israel, at which time he visited the Church of the Nativity in Nazareth and the Church of the Last Supper on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Although the visit did not represent any change in the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional position regarding the State of Israel, Pope Paul did meet unofficially with former President of Israel Zalman Shazar at the Mandlebaum Gate in Jerusalem.

During his reign, the Pope also established contact with Jewish political and intellectual leaders from Israel and other nations. In addition to receiving Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan and other leading Israelis, the Pontiff held an unprecedented meeting with Premier Golda Meir in January, 1973, the first audience granted to an Israeli head of state. A Vatican statement released later noted that, during the meeting with the Israeli Premier, the Pope had recalled “the history and sufferings of the Jewish people.”

Subsequently, however, the papal spokesman, Professor Frederico Alessandrini, felt compelled to issue a “verbal note” to the press asserting that the audience with Mrs. Meir was not granted as a “preferential exclusive gesture” by the Pope, but rather was arranged in order “not to let slip any opportunity to act in favor of peace, in defense of all religious interests, and most of all the Palestinian refugees.”


Jewish leaders also lauded the Pope’s major theological decisions regarding Jews and Judaism. Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, noted that Pope Paul, following in the spirit of his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, took steps to change Catholic attitudes toward Judaism and to improve relations between Catholics and Jews.

In the wake of Vatican Council II, convened in the fall of 1962, and Pope John’s overtures to Jewish leaders through his appointed representative, Cardinal Bea, Pope Paul held a dramatic meeting with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great philosopher of Judaism. Heschel, who had attended the Vatican Council, appealed for a modification of Catholic doctrine regarding the issues of deicide and conversion of Jews.

It was apparent, from the Pope’s subsequent references to Heschel’s writings that he was much impressed by Heschel and that the two men had developed a personal friendship. The Pontiff declared publicly that he had received much inspiration from Heschel’s work and that his understanding of Jews and the Jewish religion had been greatly enhanced.

Following his audience with Heschel, the Pope on Oct. 20, 1965 promulgated the well-known Vatican Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, which represented a major shift in Catholic doctrine regarding the Jews. The Declaration repudiated the “false charge of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Christ” and called for “fraternal dialogue and mutual respect between Catholics and Jews throughout the world.” In the wake of this document, a Vatican Secretariat on Catholic-Jewish Relations was established in an unprecedented attempt to encourage cooperation between Catholics and Jews in the United States, Israel and other parts of the world.

The Catholic-Jewish dialogue was continued in the form of annual conferences beginning in 1970 between the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), and the Vatican. The IJCIC is an umbrella organization composed of representatives of the Synagogue Council of America, World Jewish Congress, Israel Interfaith Committee, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Pope Paul met with the leaders of this group in 1975.

Pope Paul met with leaders of the IJCIC and subsequently issued a set of Vatican Guidelines for the implementation of the principles outlined in his 1965 Declaration. These guidelines included plans for the revision of anti-Jewish teachings contained in Catholic textbooks, liturgy and sermons. The guidelines were hailed by Tanenbaum as “a watershed event in relations between Christians and Jews.”

Recently, in 1977, the Pope renounced all Catholic efforts to proselytize among Jews in a statement made before the annual IJCIC-Vatican Conference in Venice. This declaration, according to Siegman, was indicative of a major shift in Catholic doctrine, in that Judaism was for the first time recognized as a legitimate and eternal faith in its own right rather than merely the precursor of Christianity.


However, in spite of much that was positive in Pope Paul’s policy toward the Jews, a number of Jewish leaders expressed disappointment in the fact that the bright promise of a new era in Christian-Jewish relations held out by Pope John XXIII was only partially fulfilled by his successor. They explained that the Pope’s pronouncements on the deicide and conversion questions fell short of the pledges made by Cardinal Bea.

It was also recalled that during his 1964 visit to Israel, the Pope defended the behavior of Pope Pius XII who has been condemned for his silence in the face of Hitler’s extermination of European Jewry. Some Jewish leaders were also extremely disturbed by the fact that the Vatican delegation to a UN confab in Vancouver in 1976 supported a resolution condemning Zionism. The Vatican delegation to an Islamic-Catholic conference held in Tripoli, Libya in 1976 also signed a joint resolution containing attacks on Israel and Zionism. The Vatican was subsequently compelled to disavow those attacks in response to a storm of criticism from Catholic and Jewish organizations.

Goren recalled that, over the years, he had made four appeals to Pope Paul to help secure the release of Jewish prisoners in the Soviet Union and Syria. In each instance, the Pope had promised, through his delegate in Jerusalem, that the Vatican would offer its assistance by means of quiet diplomacy.

Yet, the Pope actively interceded on the part of Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, sentenced in December, 1974 by an Israeli court to 12 years imprisonment for smuggling terrorist arms into Israel. The Vatican, through negotiations with an Israeli official, was successful in obtaining Capucci’s release which was as a “good will gesture toward the Christian world.”

Nevertheless, despite reservations on the part of some Jewish leaders, Goren, in today’s statement, praised Pope Paul and expressed the hope that his successor “will continue to promote the spirit of brotherhood between the different faiths and will extend formal recognition to the Biblical phenomenon being enacted in the Holy Land with the renaissance of the State of Israel, which implements the vision of the Prophets.”

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