Behind the Headlines: Jews’ Meeting with Pope Next Week to Have Public and Private Agenda
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Behind the Headlines: Jews’ Meeting with Pope Next Week to Have Public and Private Agenda

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When Jewish leaders meet with Pope John Paul II in Rome next week, the public focus will be on educating Catholics around the world about the Vatican’s revised position on Judaism and the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Privately, however, the 20-plus representatives of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, plan to raise a number of more delicate issues.

One sensitive topic will be the Vatican’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The formal purpose of the meeting between Jewish leaders and Vatican leaders is to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration of its relationship to other religions, including Judaism.

That document helped pave the way to increased communication between Jewish and Catholic leaders, and closer cooperation between the two faiths.

But beginning in 1987, that progress was interrupted by a series of controversies, including the pope’s decision to meet with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, his embrace of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and the continuing occupation of a convent on the site of the Auschwitz death camp by a group of Carmelite nuns.

The start of construction on an interfaith prayer center, where the nuns eventually will be relocated, has brought an end to nearly three years of tense Catholic-Jewish relations.


The rift was formally mended at a meeting of Catholic and Jewish leaders in Prague early in September, when Vatican representatives put forth a statement condemning anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity.

The pope is expected to endorse the Prague declaration personally at next week’s meeting, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, one of six Jewish groups that make up IJCIC.

The pope’s imprimatur is considered especially important if the declaration is to have any impact in Eastern Europe, where the influence of the church is great.

The public sessions of next week’s two-day meeting will be devoted to reflections on Nostra Aetate and statements of good will.

The central themes will be the promulgation of the church’s revised teachings regarding Jews and Judaism, and their impact, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Jewish speakers are to include Seymour Reich, chairman of IJCIC; Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of interreligious affairs for the Synagogue Council of America, an IJCIC constituent; and Rabbi Elio Toaff, chief rabbi of Rome.

Catholic speakers will include Archbishop Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews; Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president emeritus of the Vatican Commission; and Cardinal Franz Koenig, former primate of Austria.

At private meetings between the Jewish and Catholic delegations, and at the private audience the delegates will have with the pope, sensitive issues like the convent at Auschwitz and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel will be raised, say those involved with the dialogue.

“We want to make it clear to the Vatican that Prague cannot really have its full impact on Christian-Jewish relations if they do not extend full diplomatic relations to Israel,” said Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, co-chairman of interreligious affairs for the Synagogue Council, who will not be going to Rome.


The Vatican’s rationale for “consistently refusing to recognize Israel — the question of Jerusalem, the unsettled borders and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians” — is suspect, said Schonfeld.

“They keep saying that they don’t have a theological problem with recognizing Israel, but we don’t believe that.

“They really have a problem because we have come back to the Holy Land when, according to their belief, we were exiled because we didn’t believe in Jesus,” he asserted.

While Israel would “welcome” a diplomatic relationship with the Vatican, Israel “is tired of raising the question without seeing the dividends,” said IJCIC Chairman Reich.

“It is something Israel believes is long overdue, but it must be extended by the Vatican,” he explained. “Israel will not be a supplicant, and neither will we.

“While it is one of many subjects that we will be raising,” he said, “it is up to the State of Israel to conclude these discussions.”

That the subject of Vatican relations with Israel is even to be discussed, albeit privately, is indication itself of progress. As recently as a year ago, Vatican officials requested that Jewish leaders not raise the issue in meetings with the pope.

Next week’s meeting with the pope, which was originally scheduled to take place in mid-November, was postponed because of disputes within the Synagogue Council.


Those problems have been solved, at least temporarily, with the election of a new president to head the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Sheldon Rudoff is succeeding Sidney Kwestel as the head of the Orthodox Union, which is one of the six rabbinic and congregational bodies that make up the Synagogue Council.

The O.U. had insisted it had the right to veto any delegate selected by another Synagogue Council member group, including delegates who would participate in the meetings with the pope.

Rudoff, who is considered more of a conciliatory leader than Kwestel, has, for the moment, put the controversial issue aside. “Anything that took place, took place during the last administration,” he said.

Since the postponement, two Jewish groups that were formerly involved in IJCIC have rejoined the umbrella group, which the Vatican recognizes as its sole Jewish partner in interfaith dialogue.

They are the American Jewish Committee, which pulled out of IJCIC last year, and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, which is returning as part of the B’nai B’rith International delegation, after leaving the group in 1985.

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