Pope brings a message of cooperation to Holy Land


When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel today for his first visit to the Holy Land, he will bear a message of religious cooperation aimed in part at strengthening often shaky Catholic-Jewish relations.

Benedict’s Middle East pilgrimage began in Jordan and will also take him to the West Bank, where he’ll visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

He will meet with Israel’s two chief rabbis, its president and prime minister. And he’ll huddle with organizations involved in inter-religious dialogue.


Jewish and Roman Catholic leaders in the U.S., and particularly those in Los Angeles, widely agree that Benedict’s Middle East trip could go a long way toward soothing hard feelings caused by recent controversies, including the pontiff’s decision earlier this year to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.

“It will validate the relationship that existed between Pope John Paul II and Israel . . . and that is very important,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, won praise for his many overtures toward Jews, including a 2000 visit to Israel. He was the first pope to pay an official visit to a synagogue, the first to formally recognize Israel and the first to pray at the Auschwitz concentration camp in his native Poland.

Benedict, who was elected in 2005, has had a rockier time.

He angered Jews in 2007 when he relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass, which includes a passage that calls for the conversion of Jews.

In January, he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-conservative bishops, one of whom, British-born Richard Williamson, denied that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.

The decision triggered a worldwide outcry among Jewish leaders, who warned that it would set back decades of efforts to mend strained relations between the two faiths.


The Vatican subsequently demanded Williamson retract his public statements about the Holocaust but has not been fully satisfied with his responses, Catholic officials said.

One prominent Jewish leader called the Williamson episode “a major wart and embarrassment” for Benedict but added that it was overshadowed by the pope’s recognition of Israel and his visit to the Jewish state. He is only the third pope to do so.

“There will always be disagreements, but he is following the path set by . . . John Paul II and that is a good thing for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Hier said he had a private audience with Benedict two years ago and found the pope to be genuinely interested in Jewish life.

“He gave us the impression without a doubt that he has a desire for friendship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel,” Hier said.

Father James Massa, who oversees ecumenical and inter-religious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Benedict, much like John Paul II, sees Jews as “elder brothers and sisters,” with a history that is central to Christianity.


“Christian identity depends on this relationship between God and the Jewish people,” Massa said. “It’s an essential reference point for our understanding of us as the church.”

At a Los Angeles forum on Jewish-Catholic relations last week, leaders from both faiths explored the complexities of that relationship.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, told an audience at Loyola Marymount University that centuries of Christian persecution, including the Holocaust, had created a “bitter legacy” for contemporary Jews.

As part of that legacy, Diamond cited the controversy over the Latin Mass and Benedict’s decision to lift Williamson’s excommunication. “Let’s face it, Bishop Williamson was a major setback,” he said.

But Diamond also said he found promise not only in the pope’s Israel pilgrimage but in local ecumenical efforts, including rabbi-priest dialogues and interfaith missions to the Vatican and Israel.

“There will always be setbacks and controversies as there are in any complex, evolving relationship,” Diamond the event that was sponsored by Loyola Marymount’s Center for Religion & Spirituality.


“I believe our challenge and our opportunity is how we respond to them and how we learn and grow.”

The Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, acknowledged the hurt caused by the Williamson affair, saying: “The Vatican should have done their homework.”

But he urged Catholics and Jews to forge lasting relationships that can survive crises.

Noting the title of a recent John Paul II exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center, Smith said: “We have to move beyond simply addressing hurts and look for more concrete ways to substantiate that wondrous phrase of Pope John Paul II: ‘Catholics and Jews, a blessing to one another.’ ”