FaithWorld

Out of the spotlight, Israel and Vatican negotiate holy sites

Vatican flag in Jerusalem, Reuters photo by Baz Ratner

Vatican flags raised outside Jerusalem's Old City before Pope Benedict's visit, 6 May 2009/Baz Rattner

There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.

Pope Benedict put his predecessor Pius XII along the road to Roman Catholic sainthood last month, angering many Jews who accused the wartime pope of turning a blind eye to the Nazi Holocaust.  Benedict defended the move this week during his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, which prompted Israel to ask the pope to open up the Vatican archives covering Pius’ reign between 1939-1958.

But behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, the Catholic church and Jewish state have restarted efforts to put to rest a property dispute in the Holy Land that goes back much further than World War Two or Israel’s founding in 1948. Churches acquired large amounts of land around Jerusalem as the Ottoman empire went into decline from the early 19th century. Today, many official Israeli buildings sit on leased church land. But agreement on the legal status of these properties has evaded governments and popes for decades.

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office early last year, his Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was made pointman in a push to settle the decades-old  debate.  Ayalon was at the Vatican last month to try to narrow divides over six religious sites, including what is believed by Christians to be the Cenacle of the Last Supper, whose future status remains uncertain. Negotiating teams held a meeting again this month, which ended with the vague statement that they “did useful work in atmosphere of cordaility” and that they would meet again. Ayalon heads to the Vatican again in May.

New Catholic archbishop of Brussels raises hackles in Belgium

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Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels at news conference in Brussels 18 Jan 2010/Thierry Roge

The long-awaited announcement of the successor to the retiring Catholic archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has sparked an unusual outcry in Belgium. The new archbishop, André-Mutien Léonard, is sometimes called  “the Belgian Ratzinger” for his conservative views. Danneels ranks as one of the last liberal prelates in a Church hierarchy that has turned increasingly traditional under Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.

Léonard has been a controversial figure in Belgium for his critical stands on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and condom use. He has been an outspoken opponent of abortion and euthanasia, both of which are legal in Belgium, and criticised the Catholic universities of Leuven and Louvain for their research into assisted reproduction and embryonic stem cells.

Visiting synagogues is not getting easier for Pope Benedict

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Pope Benedict at Rome's main synagogue, 17 Jan 2010/Osservatore Romano

Visiting synagogues is not getting any easier for Pope Benedict.

Today’s meeting with Rome’s Jewish community was the third time he has entered a synagogue, which is a kind of a papal record considering that his predecessor Pope John Paul — probably the first pope to do so since Saint Peter two millennia ago — made only one such visit himself.

His first synagogue visit, in Cologne only months after his 2005 election, was heavy with the symbolism of a German pope visiting Jews in Germany.  At one point, the rabbi referred to an elderly woman in the congregation who had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. He did this, though, to say that she could not have never imagined back there in Auschwitz that her son — a leader of the Cologne Jewish community present at the ceremony — would one day welcome the pope to a synagogue in Germany. It was tense, but it seemed to be a good start. pope schneier

Pope Benedict receives gift from Rabbi Arthur Schneier in New York, 18 April 2008/Max Rossi

Pope’s synagogue visit splits Italy’s Jews over stand on Pius XII

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Rome synagogue, 7 July 2008/Jensens

Deep splits have appeared in Italy’s Jewish community just before Pope Benedict makes his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, with at least one senior rabbi and one Holocaust survivor announcing a boycott.  The row revolves around the pontiff’s decision last month to raise nearer to sainthood wartime Pope Pius XII, who many Jews say did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany, a position the Vatican rejects.

Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni has decided to go ahead with the visit and told Reuters he believed only God could judge Pius XII.

Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy’s rabbinical assembly, announced he will not attend the visit on Sunday to protest at what he said were a series of Vatican moves seen as disrespectful to Jews, including the pope’s decision to start the rehabilitation process last year of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied the extent of the Holocaust.

U.S. Jesuits honour ABC Williams with prize named after English martyr

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Archbishop Rowan Williams leads Christmas carol service at Canterbury Cathedral, 23 Dec 2009/Suzanne Plunkett

Poor Rowan Williams. Only a few weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion was caught offguard by a Vatican offer of a new Roman home for Anglicans who cannot accept the idea of women bishops. At a joint news conference with London’s Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols, he did his ecumenical best to present this as a quite normal gesture among friendly Christian churches and not — as some media presented it — a Roman strategy to poach wandering sheep from the divided Anglican flock. It was proof of his sharp intellect and deep commitment to the ecumenical cause that Williams found a way to finesse this very trying situation. america mag

America magazine

Now another challenge has come not from across the Tiber, but across the Atlantic. The New York-based Jesuit weekly magazine America has just said it is proud to announce that The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the 2009 recipient of the Campion Award. The award is given on a regular basis to a noted Christian person of letters. It is named after St. Edmund Campion, S.J., who is patron of America’s communications ministry.”

Port-au-Prince RC cathedral in ruins after Haiti earthquake

Our photographers in Haiti have produced many sad images of the widespread death and destruction from Tuesday’s massive earthquake, some of which are collected in a slideshow here.  Following are shots of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Port-au-Prince in ruins.  Among the dead in the quake was Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, who the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano reported was found lifeless “under the rubble of the archbishop’s residence.”

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(Credits: Kena Betancur, Kena Betancur, Jorge Silva, Eduardo Munoz, Reuters TV)

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Traditional Anglican bloc eyeing union with Rome is far-flung group

TAC seal

TAC seal

The question of how many Anglicans will join the Roman Catholic Church has been hanging in the air since Pope Benedict made his offer last October to take in Anglican groups that cannot accept reforms such as ordaining women bishops. The largest figure mentioned is the 400,000-strong membership of the Traditional Anglican Communion, a traditionalist group that is not actually a member of the Anglican Communion that most Anglicans belong to. It is sometimes presented as a bloc whose transfer will be an important event.

Even though the TAC left the Anglican Communion two decades ago, it could be quite important to the Roman Catholic Church if that many Anglicans (of whatever standing) came knocking on the door seeking entry. And the sight of so many switching to Rome could also have an indirect impact on the Anglican Communion. St. Peter's Basilica, 3 Nov 2008/Tom Heneghan

St. Peter's Basilica, 3 Nov 2008/Tom Heneghan

But those TAC members, even if their total does add up to 400,000, are so widely spread out that they might actually  have only a small local impact if and when they “swim the Tiber.” The Church Times has a breakdown of the TAC membership that shows that 92% of the communion’s members live in India and Africa. The largest congregation, the 130,000 reported in India, might seem like an impressive number in Britain, but it’s small by subcontinental standards.  The numbers in Britain and Europe (1,800), Canada (2,000) or the United States (2,500) are really small. Even if all members join at the same time, it may not seem like they are joining en bloc.

Ukraine dispute blocks Vatican, Russian Orthodox meeting – Hilarion

By Aidar Buribayev kirill dome

Patriarch Kirill in Pochayiv Monastery in Ukraine, 5 Aug 2009/Vitaliy Hrabar

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, would be willing to meet Pope Benedict after disputes with Catholics in Ukraine are resolved, Archbishop Hilarion, the Church’s external relations head, has said.  A meeting with the pope would begin to heal the 1,000 year-old-rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, which split in 1054 amid disputes over doctrine and papal authority that remain unresolved.

“This is not an issue of when the meeting will take place, but what will be discussed,” Hilarion told journalists on Tuesay.  He said the patriarch of the 165-million-strong Russian Orthodox Church, whose believers include the majority of Russia’s population as well as millions in neighbouring ex-Soviet countries Ukraine and Belarus, wanted a conflict in western Ukraine over church property to be resolved first.

“The situation in western Ukraine is the primary reason for the blocking of the meeting,” he said.

Pope says gay marriage threat to creation

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Argentinans exchange rings in Ushuaia, 28 Dec 2009

Pope Benedict on Tuesday linked the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage to concern about the environment, suggesting that laws undermining the differences between the sexes were threats to creation.

Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes,” he said at his annual meeting at the Vatican with ambassadors to the Holy See. 

  Pope Benedict addresses foreign ambassadors at the Vatican, 11 Jan 2010/Maurizio Brambatti

Pope Benedict addresses foreign ambassadors at the Vatican, 11 Jan 2010/Maurizio Brambatti

Vienna cardinal’s Medjugorje visit stirs emotions, speculation about Mary visions

Medjugorje, 25 June 2006/Danilo Krstanovic

Medjugorje, 25 June 2006/Danilo Krstanovic

A highly-publicised visit by Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to the disputed Roman Catholic shrine of Medjugorje seems to have deepened the divide between Catholics who fervently believe the Virgin Mary appears to visionaries there and those who suspect the Bosnian pilgrimage site may be a hoax.

The visit over the New Year’s holiday provoked a surprisingly undiplomatic public complaint from the bishop of Mostar, the Bosnian region that includes Medjugorje, and that has set the Catholic blogosphere buzzing (for example herehereherehereherehereherehere…). It also prompted a little-noticed theological comment from Schönborn that might point to where the debate over Medjugorje may be going. More on that later…

We reported here in October that Bosnian Church officials expected the Vatican to rule soon on the apparitions at the village supporters see as a “new Lourdes.” There has still not been any such ruling, so the issue has remained unresolved. This also heightened the interest in a visit by a leading “prince of the Church,” a cardinal who is also a close adviser of Pope Benedict and editor of the official Catechism catechism.