As the regal red curtains were drawn back, clearing the way for the still-unidentified new pope to emerge on the balcony of the Vatican Basilica and offer a blessing to church faithful, many Jews joined the world’s 1 billion Catholics in holding their collective breath. The Christians were excitedly anticipating their Holy Father’s arrival, eager for someone to fill the gap left when John Paul II, who served as pope for more than a quarter-century, died on April 2 at 84.
Jews, too, were awaiting the new pope’s arrival — and wondering what his ascendancy would mean for them. Would he promote Jewish-Catholic relations as zealously as his predecessor? Would he turn his attention instead to mending fences between Catholics and Muslims? Would he push diplomatic relations with Israel?
In short, would he be good for the Jews?
As it turns out, Jewish observers of the Vatican say, world Jewry can breathe easy knowing that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the 265th pope.
"As far as Jewish people are concerned, Cardinal Ratzinger is a friend," said Gary Krupp, president and founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes religious understanding. "He is going to be as effective, if not more, than John Paul II" in furthering Catholic-Jewish relations. "He’s not going to backtrack. I think he’s going to be advancing these causes even further."
Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI upon his election Tuesday, has been called a hard-line conservative, a vigilant watchdog and an enforcer of strict church orthodoxy.
Ratzinger was born in Marktl am Inn, Germany, in 1927. He was ordained in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology in 1953, then taught theology and dogma at a series of German universities.
He was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and was promoted to cardinal by then-Pope Paul VI after just three months.
Since 1981, he has led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was responsible for enforcing church doctrine. He became known in this role for his conservative views, upsetting some Catholics with his vocal opposition to religious pluralism and liberation theology.
Ratzinger further maintains conservative views on such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women as priests.
But he also used his position as the Vatican’s chief theologian under John Paul II to play an instrumental part in his predecessor’s historic rapprochement with the Jews. In 2000, under Ratzinger’s editorial direction, the Vatican released "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past," a watershed document that acknowledged church errors in its past dealings with Jews, asking "whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts."
Ratzinger also oversaw the 2002 publication of "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures," which asserted that "the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain" and expressed regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism.
Israeli officials and Jewish groups issued statements welcoming the selection.
"Israel is hopeful that under this new papacy, we will continue to move forward in Vatican-Israel relations and we are sure that considering the background of this new pope, he, like his predecessor, will be a strong voice against anti-Semitism in all its forms," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.
Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Ratzinger had been instrumental in improving relations between Catholics and Jews under John Paul.
"He is the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel," Singer said. "He was the ideologist behind the last pope — the theologist and the ideologist."
Not all Jewish leaders welcomed Ratzinger’s selection, however. Some said that it was precisely his role as ideologist under John Paul that made him ill-suited to be the next pope.
Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, is among the new pope’s critics.
"It was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past 25 years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa," Lerner said.
"And we watched with even greater distress as this cardinal supported efforts to involve the church in distancing from political candidates or leaders who did not agree with the church’s teachings on abortion and gay rights, prioritizing these issues over whether that candidate agreed with the church on issues of peace and social justice. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger has led the church away from its natural alliance with Jews in fighting for peace and social justice and toward a stance which in effect allies the church with the most reactionary politicians whose policies are militaristic and offer a preferential option for the rich."
Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue believes that while Benedict XVI will carry on the pope’s legacy, he may not focus heavily on Jewish issues.
"I don’t think Jewish-Catholic relations is going to be that much of a priority for him because there are other burning issues that he has to confront," such as the decreasing number of believers in Europe and the decreasing number of priests in the United States, he said. "He has to put the house in order."
Ratzinger was the odds-on favorite to become pope going into the conclave of cardinals, which began Monday. There was some speculation that the position could go to a prelate from the developing world — Africa or Latin America — where the church is seeing rapid growth.
Others predicted that the papacy could go back to an Italian: John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In the end, after white smoke poured from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel and bells tolled announcing to the world that a new pope had been chosen, the job went to Ratzinger. Because of his advancing age — the new pope turned 78 on Saturday — he is likely to be a transitional leader, serving for a relatively brief period.
Despite his stern religious bearing, those who know Ratzinger say, his intelligence, patience and personality make him good company.
"He’s very, very sweet, very pleasant, very cordial and friendly," said Krupp, who met Ratzinger at his Vatican offices in early February. After Krupp accidentally missed an earlier meeting with Ratzinger, the cardinal brushed the oversight aside.
"’Don’t worry about it, it was just a mistake,’ " Krupp recalled Ratzinger saying.
As a teen, Ratzinger reportedly was a member of the Hitler Youth. At the time, boys his age — Ratzinger was 6 years old when Hitler came to power — were pressured, though not required, to join the group.
Ratzinger served in the German army during World War II, but deserted after a short period. His policeman father reportedly engaged in anti-Nazi activity.
"For the Jewish community, it is extraordinary that the pope has personally experienced the evils of Nazism and the horrors of racism and prejudice," said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "There’s no cardinal whose life has been more entwined with that of the Jewish people than that of this cardinal."
Still, German Jews expressed some concern over Ratzinger’s election.
"A few people who know him say he is not bad. He has good relations with some Jewish persons," Nathan Kalmanowicz, head of religious affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a member of the Munich Jewish community, told JTA. "But the vast majority is afraid of what will happen. He is opposed to reform and not as familiar with Jewish issues" as the last pope, "and as far as we know he is not interested in promoting them — issues like the Holocaust."
Jacob Neusner, a theology professor at Bard College in upstate New York, was thrilled when he learned Ratzinger was the new pope. The two men have been corresponding since 1990, when Ratzinger responded to Neusner’s fan mail.
Neusner was impressed with an article Ratzinger had written about Jesus — in particular, Ratzinger’s remark that there was no such thing as an objective biography.
"I got a lovely letter back, and since then we’ve exchanged about one letter a year," Neusner said.
In addition, Ratzinger complimented Neusner on his book "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus."
"It was an explanation of why, if I had been there in the first century, I wouldn’t have followed" Jesus, Neusner said.
"He praised the book and said this is how interfaith dialogue should be carried on," Neusner added.
"He doesn’t believe in negotiating theological truths. He thinks disagreement is healthy and normal."
Speaking to JTA from St. Peter’s Square, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who teaches theology and interreligious studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said he was witnessing "pope fever."
Though Ratzinger is "basically against religious pluralism," Bemporad said, he believes faiths can learn from each other and come together to address social causes.
"He recognizes fully the autonomy and the integrity of each faith," Bemporad said.
JTA Correspondents Toby Axelrod in Germany, Dan Baron in Jerusalem and Ruth Ellen Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.