Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish, Catholic Leaders Report Cordial Meeting in Preparation for Unprecedented Talks with Pope

September 1, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish representatives and senior Catholic officials conferred for close to 10 hours Monday in what both sides described as “a warm, cordial and friendly atmosphere” laying the groundwork for Tuesday’s meetings with Pope John Paul II and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli.

Msgr. William Keeler, who chairs the American Bishop’s Commission for Relations with Jews, said Monday’s meeting “was like a meeting between brothers.” Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who heads the Jewish delegation, said “It was a constructive and cordial meeting.”

The nine-man Jewish delegation will confer Tuesday morning with Casaroli and then will be driven in official Vatican limousines to the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo for their historic meeting with the Pontiff.

That meeting is expected to last 60 to 90 minutes, and will be attended by Casaroli and other high-ranking Vatican officials.


The Vatican has informed the Jewish delegation that the meeting with the Pope will be “frank and open,” and that the delegation can raise all issues it thinks suitable without any reservations. One Catholic official has told members of the delegation, “It will be a session of give and take.”

Both sides Monday imposed, at the Vatican’s request, a total news blackout until after the meeting with the Pope, but conference officials said the Vatican delegation has indicated that it will seriously consider issuing a formal Vatican document which will energetically and unambiguously condemn revisionist tendencies toward the Holocaust and recall the martyrdom then of the Jewish people. Such a document would still need formal Vatican approval and probably take months to elaborate and draft. It would clarify the Vatican’s stand on these crucial questions and guide hundreds of million of Catholics throughout the world.

Such a statement has been one of the Jewish delegation’s requests. Many Jewish leaders believe it would help combat anti-Semitism and the “de-Judaization” of the Holocaust and serve as a barrier against revisionist tendencies.


The two delegations, nine Jews and nine high-ranking Catholic prelates, began their Monday meeting at 9:30 a.m. with the reading of Psalm 67. Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, read the verses in Hebrew and Dr. Eugene Fisher of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops read it in English.

The two delegations sat at a horseshoe-shaped table. A Vatican official explained, “We wanted to sit together like brothers and friends, and not facing each other like strangers.” All four points on the agenda were raised. The first item was the Pope’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. After the initial presentation by Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, the discussion became general and at times warm, but remained courteous in tone. All sides appeared keen to reach an understanding.

The Vatican delegates reiterated to some extent the known arguments for the audience and the meeting’s background. Although the Catholic spokesmen did not express their regret in so many words, the general undertone reportedly went in that direction.

Several of the Jewish delegates paid tribute to Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, for his understanding and feeling for the Jewish outrage.


The political issue, dealing with the Vatican’s non-recognition of Israel, was raised by Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, and Geoffrey Wigoder of the Israeli Interfaith Committee. Several of the Catholic representatives responded but-and this is considered an important change-used political and not theological arguments to explain the Vatican’s refusal to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

The Vatican position was explained by Msgr. Luigi Gatti, a member of the Secretariat of State. It is the first known instance in which a Vatican diplomat attended such a meeting and played an active role.

The Catholic delegation hosted the Jewish delegation at a kosher lunch. Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith recited the blessings in Hebrew and English. All the delegates wore yarmulkes throughout the meal.

Willebrands sat at a table with Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC); Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Klaperman; and Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

The Jewish delegation Monday night returned the invitation and hosted a dinner at its hotel for the Catholic representatives.


Vatican-watchers believe that the overall tendency within the Church hierarchy is towards a “mending of fences with the Jews” after the crisis provoked by the Pope’s June 25 meeting with Waldheim-regardless of the Pope’s forthcoming U.S. trip and his September 11 scheduled meeting with Jewish representatives in Miami. One veteran Vatican-observer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “this process englobes all major aspects of the Church’s attitude towards the Jews.”

The U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Frank Shakespeare, told the JTA, “Even where Israel is concerned, things are slowly moving ahead.” The envoy explained that the Vatican’s decisions are generally slow, “but a certain progress towards the Vatican’s recognition of Israel is in process.”

Both Shakespeare and the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Maxwell Rabb, attended a reception given by the Jewish delegation. The president of the Italian Jewish community, Tulia Zevi, was also present in spite of a certain dissatisfaction among West European Jewish communities over what they feel is an attempt to keep them out of the current negotiations.

Recommended from JTA