FaithWorld

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

Three years later, he got a warm welcome at New York’s Park East Synagogue. Chief Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, thanked God that both of them had made it through the Second World War and seen the Catholic-Jewish reconciliation begun by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. “Your presence here gives us hope and courage for the road we still have to travel together,” he added. Benedict seemed to be getting over the stumbling block of his German background and finding a way to reach out to Jews.

But instead of getting easier, today’s third visit — to the synagogue at Rome’s old Jewish ghetto — turned out to be the most difficult of all. Over 1,000 Roman Jews were deported to Nazi death camps in 1943; only 16 of them survived. The local Jewish community was divided over the visit, with some urging that it be put off after Benedict honoured his wartime predecessor Pope Pius XII last month by moving him closer to sainthood. Pius’s controversial role during the Holocaust — or non-role, as his critics see it, because he did not speak out — is a roadblock on the path of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. But Benedict seems determined to honour him, and every time he speaks or acts in his favour, the barrier seems to get higher.

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.

Rome’s chief rabbi says only God can judge Pius XII on Holocaust

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Pope Pius XII in an undated file photo from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano

Only God can judge whether war-time Pope Pius XII did enough to save Jews and whether he should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust, according to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, who will host Pope Benedict for his first visit to the Italian capital’s synagogue on Sunday.

Speaking to Reuters at his synagogue along the Tiber River, Di Segni criticised a comment by Cardinal Walter Kasper that Pius “followed the will of God as he understood it” and had saved thousands of Jews in Rome and elsewhere. Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews facing persecution.

Vatican begins talks with ultra-traditionalists

swiss-guards-vaticanThe Vatican began talks on Monday with an ultra-traditionalist Catholic splinter group, one of whose bishops has denied the full extent of the Holocaust, with the aim of re-integrating it fully into the Church. Vatican officials and leaders of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) discussed what a statement called “doctrinal differences still outstanding” between the group and Rome. (Photo: Swiss guards at St. Peter’s Basilica, 25 Oct 2009/Tony Gentile)

The traditionalists reject many of the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which modernised many aspects of the 1.1 billion member Church, including its liturgy, its relations with other Christians and its view of Jews.

The group, numbering several hundred thousand members, insists that it represents the true faith, and opposes the way the Church has evolved over the past 40 years. The SSPX says the Vatican and the vast majority of the Church went off the rails at the Council.

UPDATE: SSPX to ordain new priests despite Vatican warning

econe-1The Vatican warning to the ultra-traditionalist SSPX not to ordain new priests this month without Roman approval had no discernible effect on the rebel Catholic group. Soon after the Vatican declared the ordinations would be illegitimate, Father Yves Le Roux, rector of the SSPX’s St Thomas Aquinas seminary in Winona, Minnesota, said the ordination of 13 new priests there would go ahead on Friday.

“Absolutely. We are doing it,” he told our Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella by telephone. “This is something the Vatican feels it has to say. It’s a political statement but the reality is totally different.” (Photo: SSPX ordains deacons in Écône, Switzerland, 3 April 2009/Valentin Flauraud)

The SSPX seminary at Zaitzkofen, in the German state of Bavaria, declared its intention to go ahead with its June 27 ordinations in a statement posted on its website on Monday (here in German original and in English). It argued that Pope Benedict’s decision in January to lift the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops was a “confidence-building measure for the coming theological discussions with representatives of the Holy See” meant to thrash out an official position in the Church for the SSPX.” Further ordinations are due at the SSPX headquarters in Écône, Switzerland on June 29.

Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims

pope-in-dome (Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.

“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”

Pope in Nazareth restates Catholic family values

nazareth-mass (Photo: Catholics attend pope’s Mass in Nazareth, 14 May 2009/Gil Cohen Magen)

After several days when the location of a speech sometimes clashed with the message he wanted to send, Pope Benedict must have been relieved to visit Nazareth today. The town where Jesus grew up lies in Israel proper, in the north of the country, and not in the political minefield of the West Bank that Benedict visited yesterday to see Bethlehem. In the town of the Holy Family, he was able to defend traditional Catholic family values without having to consider issues such as Palestinian statehood or apologies for the Holocaust. As he put it:

“All of us need… to return to Nazareth, to contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!”

Of course, this is just as political as the other questions he’s dealt with on this visit, as the growing acceptance of gay marriage at the state level in the United States shows, but it’s on a different level. The issue isn’t the same in Israel, because the the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriages here and rules out gay marriage. The same goes for civil unions. But colleagues in our Jerusalem bureau tell me that times are changing here as well. Israeli social services now often recognise a long-standing gay relationship as similar to common law marriage and extend benefits to same-sex partners.

Who wrote the pope’s speeches for this trip?

pope-wall-speechWho wrote Pope Benedict’s speeches for this trip? Why do his speeches to Muslims hit the spot and those to Jews seem to fall short? Does he have two teams of speechwriters, one more attuned to the audience than the other?

We don’t know the answers (yet) but a pattern suggesting that has certainly emerged. Look at what he had to say today in Bethlehem to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim:

    To Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers…” To Palestinian Catholics at Mass: “In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure.” At Aida refugee camp: “I know that many of your families are divided – through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement – and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. My heart goes out to all who suffer in this way.” On the Israeli-built wall: “In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected… How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!”
(Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, 13 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

These comments stand in strong contrast to his speech at Yad Vashem, which was so abstract that his Jewish audience — and commentators in the media — were openly disappointed by it. They called it lukewarm, said he avoided speaking clearly about the Holocaust and said nothing about the fact he himself is German. He skirted the contentious issues that strain Catholic-Jewish relations, such as the possible beatification of the late Pope Pius XII or the recent lifting of the excommunication of an arch-conservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

Mixed Israeli press reaction to Benedict’s Yad Vashem speech

pope-yad-smallPope Benedict was never going to please his critics in Israel, so it’s not surprising that today’s headlines were almost all negative about his speech at Yad Vashem yesterday. Reading the English-language press this morning, I was interested in seeing the nuances in the different reactions. Here are a few examples of what I found:

In Haaretz, the main headline read “Survivors angered by Benedict’s ‘lukewarm’ speech.’” That story focused on the reaction from Yad Vashem officials as we reported yesterday. You can see a PDF of its front page here. The two commentaries were more nuanced than the main story. (Photo: Pope Benedict at Yad Vashem, 11 May 2009/Yannis Behrakis)

Tom Segev’s front-page analysis “Someone in Rome chose ‘killed’” focused on the way Benedict described the Holocaust victims’ fate: “He inexplicably said Jews “were killed,” as if it had been an unfortunate accident. On the surface, this may seem unimportant: Israelis often use the same term, and they do not need the pope to tell them about the Holocaust, which today is a universal code for absolute evil. But the word the pope used is significant because someone in the Holy See decided to write “were killed” instead of “murdered” or “destroyed.” The impression is that the cardinals argued among themselves over whether Israelis “deserve” for the pope to say “were murdered” and decided they only deserve “were killed.” It sounded petty.

What should a German pope say at Yad Vashem?

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What should a German pope say at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem?

The chairman of the Yad Vashem council, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, was underwhelmed by Pope Benedict’s effort at the memorial this afternoon. “There certainly was no apology expressed here,” he told Israeli television. “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret.” Nor was there an “expression of empathy with the sorrow.” Lau also criticised Benedict for not specifically saying six million Jews were killed — even though the pope did use this figure earlier in the day during another speech.

While I don’t agree completely with Rabbi Lau, I also thought the speech was not up to the occasion. It was vague and evasive. It approached the Holocaust in an abstract way. Click here to see the difference between his approach and the more direct and powerful style Pope John Paul chose when he made the first papal visit to Yad Vashem nine years ago.

It is a unique situation when, within living memory of the Holocaust, a German is head of the Roman Catholic Church. He is visiting Israel as the head of a universal church, sure, but nobody can forget that he comes from the country that carried out the Holocaust. This is not to imply that he bears any personal blame. But most German clergy, politicians and average citizens acknowledge their country’s responsibility to admit its failures and pledge to never fail that way again. To do so is simply honest and to their credit – unlike for example Japan, which still struggles with admitting its own history.