The pope’s Jewish baggage


When the world learned that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been named the new pope, Jews familiar with the man now known as Pope Francis rushed to talk about his warm dealings with the Jewish community in his native Argentina. As the JTA Archive documents, the Jewish-papal relationship has been filled with ups and downs over the years.

In 1923, the Chicago Tribune reported that Pope Pius XI blamed Russian Jews for the persecution of Russian Catholics, but the Vatican denied to JTA that it harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. A decade and a half later, in 1939, Jews praised that pope upon his death as an outspoken fighter against racist Nazi policies.

The next pope, Pius XII, has been criticized by historians and Jews for turning a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. However, during his reign, JTA reported on a number of positive papal-Jewish encounters, including a 1942 report that Pius XII intervened with the French Vichy government over mass arrests of Jews; received praise from the chief rabbi of Rome for saving Jews during the war; and even said in 1944 that he would recognize a Jewish state in Palestine (he never did).

One of the most important developments in Catholic-Jewish relations came in 1959, when Pope John XXIII removed offensive references to Jews from Good Friday prayers, the first pope ever to do something of this kind. In 1962, JTA reported on how the pope was inspiring churches all over the world to fight anti-Semitism and foster positive relationships with the Jewish people.

Pope John Paul II pushed the reconciliation agenda of his predecessor wider and deeper. In 1979, he became the first pope to visit Auschwitz, where he prayed for the souls of the millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. In 1993, the Vatican established diplomatic ties with Israel for the first time, and in 2000, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI, whose recent resignation spurred the new elections, had a more ambivalent relationship with Jews. In early 2009, he sparked Jewish ire by revoking the excommunication of four bishops, one of whom had denied the scope of the Holocaust. He also upset Jews by reviving a pre-Vatican II Good Friday Latin prayer calling for the conversion of Jews and moving the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood. But Benedict also visited Auschwitz, vowed while on a visit to Israel to fight anti-Semitism and visited a synagogue in New York.

How Francis will fare in comparison to his predecessors remains to be seen; so far, Jewish observers have been optimistic.

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