On May 12 I was privileged to be a witness to history when Pope Benedict XVI visited the Kotel. Earlier, while standing on Mount Nebo, Jordan, the spot from which Moses viewed the Holy Land, Benedict spoke of the “inseparable bond” between Catholics and Jews.
The pope’s trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority was designed to strengthen the cause of those who believe in peaceful coexistence. His presence in Israel, at a time when others are attempting to delegitimize the Jewish state, has strengthened Israel’s international standing.
In meetings with President Shimon Peres and Chief Rabbis Yonah Metzger and (Rishon LeTzion) Shlomo Amar at Hechal Shlomo, the pope called for Holocaust remembrance and strong condemnation of anti-Semitism. I was present when Benedict dramatically walked out on an impromptu anti-Israel diatribe by Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, who had hijacked a meeting designed for interfaith dialogue.
Detractors claim Benedict lacks sensitivity to Jewish suffering. His speech at Yad Vashem has been called underwhelming, and conspicuous for its absence of personal contrition. But it would be a mistake to dissect each sentence of his address without welcoming the larger message.
We must use Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel to broaden ties between the Catholic Church and our people. Considerable progress has been achieved in the four decades since the adoption of Nostra Aetate and Vatican II in 1965, and there is still much more to accomplish as we navigate this evolving relationship.
Periodic setbacks are to be expected, as was evidenced in the Williamson debacle this past winter. On February 12 I presented leaders of the Presidents Conference to the pope at a private audience in which we expressed our dismay and hurt. The pope in his remarks condemned the crimes of the Third Reich against the Jewish people and told us he personally embraced the prayer of contrition John Paul II had uttered at the Kotel during his trailblazing visit in 2000:
God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
The trip to Israel was another step in Pope Benedict’s ongoing outreach to the Jewish community, and a deepening of the ties between Israel and the Vatican, which first established diplomatic relations in 1994. Since the beginning of his pontificate Benedict has visited the synagogue in Cologne, the death camp at Auschwitz, and Park East Synagogue on the eve of Passover 2008, the first papal visit to an American synagogue.
As a Holocaust survivor myself, I believe the ravages of war have shaped Pope Benedict’s worldview and his pursuit of peace. His own life experiences give him a better understanding of the persecution and suffering the Jewish people have faced throughout history. His consistent stand against anti-Semitism has given voice to those who take a stand against the surge in anti-Semitism currently manifesting itself in Europe.
As the demographics of the Catholic Church change we must consider the likelihood that the next pope will not be of European descent, but will come either from Africa or Latin America and will not have a personal link to the horrors of the Shoah or an understanding of the moral obligation to forge a relationship with the Jewish community and Israel.
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation has had ongoing contact with the highest officials of the Vatican on issues of religious freedom and human rights since 1965. I remember my first private audience with Pope John Paul II in 1982. It was after my mission to the Soviet Union and Hungary on behalf of our oppressed Jewish brothers and sisters during which I also sought to ease the restrictions imposed on Catholics and other religious groups. At that time I raised the question of establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican and the pope responded, “We have to be careful about the fate of Christians in Muslim lands.”
In 1986, after I’d met with Chinese leaders in Beijing, John Paul welcomed me at a private audience with the words “Here comes my nuncio from China” and expressed his appreciation for my efforts on behalf of Catholics there. I thanked the pope for his remembrance of the Shoah and his outreach to the Jewish people and I again brought up the issue of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. I was told the time was still not ripe, though the answer was more encouraging in both tone and detail.