Published in The Jerusalem Post on October 24, 1999
Unless the plan to build a small mosque in proximity to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is canceled, some senior clergymen in Rome are threatening to cancel the Pope’s planned millennial visit to Israel next March. The Pontiff may contain his visit to Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority, they warn.
Without intending any disrespect, Vatican policy-makers should understand that some of us here in the sovereign state of the Jewish People are not overly devastated by the Church’s threat to pass us by. We politely welcome John Paul II’s pilgrimage, but no threats please.
This entire paper would not suffice to recap the anti-Jewish doctrines promulgated by Church Fathers which guided Catholic theology and practice down to the middle of this century. For centuries, Jews were rejecters of Christ, “perfidious” objects of contempt to be isolated and humiliated until they “saw the light”, a non-people shorn of their covenantal heritage including the right to the Land of Israel. The Crusaders wiped out entire Jewish communities, and Church Councils through the 19th century endorsed ghettoization and persecution of Jews.
Pope Pius XII was complicity silent throughout the Holocaust, and if you follow John Cornwall’s recent account (“Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII”, Viking Press, 1999) — far worse than complicit. Criminally, knowingly indifferent.
The Vatican’s official 1998 “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah” document actually praises Pius XII. It fails to adequately acknowledge the direct connection between 2000 years of theologically-encouraged Christian anti-Semitism and the poisoned climate which made the Holocaust possible.
Vatican representatives lobbied heavily against the establishment of the State of Israel. The Pope warmly embraced Yasser Arafat way back (in 1982) when no-one else would go near the terrorist chieftain. It took until 1993 for the Vatican to accord diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel — and only then largely because it didn’t want to be excluded from regional peace developments.
Still, the ancient Christian anti-Semitism that fueled the Nazi program has since been roundly repudiated by the Church, beginning with *Nostra Aetate* in 1965 and expanded upon by the current, far more honest and honorable Pope.
John Paul II has significantly changed for the better the way in which Christians view, and teach about, Jews.
He has reaffirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people retains eternal validity; termed anti-Semitism a “sin against God” and called on the faithful to do “teshuva” for misdeeds against the Jews (using the Hebrew word for repentance); respectfully attended synagogue services and spoken of Jews as “elder brothers”; acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and its right to security; and established diplomatic relations with the State that embodies Jewish continuity.
“John Paul II is the best Pope we’ve ever head”, say Jewish leaders active in inter-religious dialogue. “The measure of how much things have changed”, says the ADL’s Rabbi David Rosen (chairman of the International Council of Christians and Jews), “is that no Roman Catholic priest who expresses anti-Semitic sentiments could ever become a Cardinal or a Primate in today’s Church”.
Consequently, I’m prepared to welcome John Paul II and his flock of millions to our country next spring, if they come. Despite my suspicions and residual resentment of the Church, John Paul II could use the visit as an opportunity to bring about real change in our fraught relationship.
While visiting Yad Vashem, I would expect the Pontiff to come clean on the Church’s Holocaust record (time to *really* open the archives); and to make an unambiguous declaration of repentance for ignoring (at best) the fate of us “elder brothers”. And I would expect the Pope to formally disassociate himself from the ghastly suggestion to make a saint out of Pius XII.
At a formal state ceremony in Jerusalem, John Paul II ought to acknowledge the Jewish People’s historical, religious and national roots in the holy city (without denying the political and cultural claims of others). Such an address would do more for Christian-Jewish rapprochement than another 100 synagogue visits or warmly-worded encyclicals.
At the moment, the Pope wants to avoid an official state reception in Jerusalem. He prefers to be received by Israeli leaders somewhere diplomatically non-descript and theologically non-committal, like Ben-Gurion International Airport. I don’t think that Ministers Ramon and Shahak, responsible for coordinating the Pontiff’s visit, should let him get away with that.
Recompense, repentance and reconciliation – not threats — is the ideological package with which the Catholic Church should land here. Only then might John Paul II’s “millennial pilgrimage” indeed be a voyage of historic proportions.