The election or the demise of a pope is always an event of enormous public interest that resonates well beyond the Catholic world. This was certainly the case when the newswires flashed their bulletin that Pope Benedict XVI had taken the unprecedented step of resigning because of age and ill health, becoming the first pontiff in more than six centuries to do so.
Jews have a particular interest in the election of a new pope, because their two thousand-year tumultuous relationship with the Catholic Church has been defined by much pain and suffering and they know from experience what an impact a pope can have on their future.
I remember vividly being glued to my television in April 2005 as the white smoke went up from the Sistine Chapel on the fourth ballot, after which came the stunning announcement that the new leader of the Church would be the German cardinal who had once worn the uniform of the Hitler Youth. I remember thinking: Here we go again.
It was only after some research that I discovered that in fact Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was born in Bavaria into a home that opposed Hitler’s policies, but like all teenagers he was forced to join the Hitler Youth and later assigned to the anti-aircraft corps responsible for protecting German industry from allied attacks. When the war ended, he enrolled in a Catholic seminary where he quickly rose through the ranks.
Within two decades he would become one of the Catholic Church’s preeminent theologians, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Though he was a staunch conservative, on the major issues facing the Jewish people Pope Benedict XVI relied on what he wrote in 1985: “The church marches forward to the fulfillment of history. One does not go back, nor can one.”
He played a major role as a key adviser to John Paul II during a time when Church policy toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel underwent significant change. Had he opposed such a major shift, John Paul’s recognition of Israel may never have happened.
Benedict may have lacked the exuberance of a John Paul II or a John XXIII, but he looked very good indeed when compared with most of the popes of the past twenty centuries.
Even the twentieth century Pope Pius X told Theodor Herzl, “Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” And Pope Paul VI went to Jerusalem for a day and refused to mention Israel by name. His subsequent thank-you note to Zalman Shazar, the then-president of Israel, was sent to Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.
Pope Benedict, on the other hand, went to the Cologne Synagogue to reaffirm that “I intend to continue with great vigor on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people…” He went to Israel and at Yad Vashem said he had “come…to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah…. may the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten. And may people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies like this.”
And in 2011 he did something no pope had done before. He wrote a book about the life of Jesus that clearly exonerated the Jews from responsibility for his death.
As a new pope is about to be elected, there is an important lesson that can be learned from the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past eight decades in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
Church leaders understand that the founders of their faith were Jews who not only lived in but also loved the land of Israel. They also know that there are few churches in the Arab world, and that Israel remains immutably committed to the principle of freedom of religion.
As for we Jews, it is important for us to remember that in a global society we need friends to survive.
Naturally, Jews will continue to have their differences with the Church. When popes offend us we should not hesitate to speak up. If the Vatican wants Jerusalem to be divided or internationalized, we should bluntly say, “Nonsense – look at what happened when that was tried in Berlin or Vienna.”