The papal resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is literally epochal – having not occurred in 600 years.
For much of that time – indeed until 1964 – views of the Church fathers holding the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus and relegated thereafter to a “wandering, homeless and rejected status” held great sway (“A Lethal Obsession,” Robert Wistrich). In the last fifty years, however, the theological view of the Church has been transformed from eternal damnation of the Jews to recognition of the sibling relationship between Catholics and Jews. This represents a remarkable sea change.
As my friend Jason Adkins, Executive Director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, wished: “Let us hope we will continue to build bridges between Christians and Jews in the succession from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict to the next Pope.”
Elected as Pope only five years after the century of the Holocaust, prominent figures in Jewish religious leadership have been praising Benedict XVI, who was of sufficient age to have served in the Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the German Army – from which he deserted – having been raised in an anti-Nazi German family, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Times of Israel has quoted the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, as saying the Pontiff “heralded in an age of unparalleled Jewish-Catholics relations.” The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described the pontiff as a “compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom.”
In many respects, Pope Benedict XVI continued in the same forward thinking vein as Pope John Paul II with respect to Jews and Israel. The latter, who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland – became the first Pope to visit a synagogue; recognized Israel; promulgated a ground-breaking encyclical on the Holocaust and was an out-spoken foe of anti-Semitism referring to it as a “sin against G-d” while noting Jews “were our elder brothers” in faith. Praying at Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II stated: “We wish to commit ourselves to a genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.” (“John Paul II and the Jews,” Our Elder Brothers, 2007.)
For Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews, his first official act was writing a letter to Rome's Jewish community. His first trip abroad as Pope was to his native Germany where he visited the synagogue in Cologne speaking out strongly about the “insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The Pope visited Israel in 2009; visited Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and met with survivors; and prayed at the Western Wall.
The Church's and the Pope's philosophy towards Jews and Judaism was well encapsulated in welcoming remarks from May 2012 to a delegation from the Latin American Jewish Congress (the Pope attended the Second Vatican Council as a young man):
“The Vatican II Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ continues to be the basis and the guide for our efforts towards promoting greater understanding, respect and cooperation between our communities. The Declaration not only took up a clear position against all forms of anti-Semitism, but also lauded the foundations for a new theological evaluation of the Church's relationship with Judaism, expressing the confidence that an appreciation of the spiritual heritage that Jews and Christians share will lead to increasing understanding and esteem.”
(Thank you to Father Erich Rutten, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas and Chair of the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, for providing the text of these remarks.)
A fair picture of Pope Benedict XVI must also include issues which generated concern in the Jewish community. Reaching out to end the schism with the Society of Pope Pius X, the Pope's reversal of the excommunication of unrepentant Holocaust denier, Richard Williamson with other individuals – raised many eyebrows, although, apparently the Pope did not know about his Holocaust denial at the time. (The Society for Pope Pius X has since expelled Williamson for these views.) Campaigning for sainthood for the World War Two-era Pope Pius XII – was seen as premature at best – with the backdrop of an incomplete historical record as a request for the release of non-published archival documents requested by the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission from 1999 – 2001 from the Vatican archives was refused by the Vatican. A return to older pre-1964 Catholic liturgy involving the Good Friday prayer was also seen as a retreat from the teachings of the Vatican II since it called for the conversion of the Jews. However, as Father Rutten points out, Pope Benedict also wrote a new Good Friday prayer for the Jews expressing eschatological hope for us all.
It is our fervent hope that the Pope who succeeds Pope Benedict XVI will follow in both his footsteps and the legacy of Pope John Paul II in strengthening the relationship between Christians and Jews.