Relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism have not been easy during Benedict XVI’s first five years as Pope. But there have also been many high points, most notably the Holy Father’s visit to Israel in May 2009 and his visit to Rome’s synagogue in January this year. Some of those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue think that the conflicts and polemics which have sometimes overshadowed relations are par for the course.
(Rome) - Relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism have not been easy during Benedict XVI’s first five years as Pope.
Whether it was the lifting of the excommunication of the anti-Semitic Lefebvrist bishop Richard Williamson, or the decree proclaiming Pius XII Venerable, disputes have been frequent and at times acrimonious.
But there have also been many high points, most notably the Holy Father’s visit to Israel in May 2009 and his visit to Rome’s synagogue in January this year.
And the general consensus among those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue is that the conflicts and polemics which have sometimes overshadowed relations are either par for the course, or water under the bridge.
“[Benedict XVI] is a great Pope with a very strong personality but maybe people don’t understand the depth of his thought,” the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, told Terrasanta.net April 27th. The Rabbi, who has been highly critical of the Church during recent disputes, added: “We have a complicated relationship with him because relations between Catholics and Jews are complicated on their own, but now we have to deal with a theologian, so you cannot avoid these problems.”
Father Norbert Hofmann, secretary of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, pointed out that this Pope has done just what John Paul II did, but over a period of five, not 27, years. “He’s been to Israel, he went to Auschwitz, and he’s visited three synagogues – no pope has ever been to three, perhaps with the exception of Peter!” he joked. “I know him personally and I know it’s in his heart to improve relations with the Jewish people.”
Fr. Hofmann also brushed off the well-publicized disputes. “Controversy is part of the package,” he said. “It’s part of the Jewish issue - without controversy, you can’t have a dialogue with the Jewish people.” But he was particularly pleased with the Pope’s visit to Rome’s synagogue, and stressed that Benedict has just the right “personal qualities” for dialogue. “He’s very clear, sincere, and has a personal way of relating with people that’s very decent and humble,” he said.
Little visible progress has been made during this pontificate in resolving the Fundamental Agreement, the treaty that established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel in 1993.
But Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, said the Jewish State considers the Holy Father to be a strong friend and that the various disputes with Judaism have not caused any serious problems in bilateral relations. “We are not deluded by the mishaps – I won’t call them controversies – which are due to the machinery, but not to him,” Lewy said. He added that Benedict XVI is “well meaning” but that the “machine”, meaning the Roman Curia, “has some obvious difficulties”. Indeed there is a strong belief that the Curia has not been fully behind him, on this and other issues. “It’s a difficult tenure for him – really,” Lewy said.
Di Segni particularly admires the way the Pope is an honest broker – “he is what he seems”, he said. On the Pius XII controversy, he hopes it will settle down but he’s not confident that it will. However he was pleased with the Pope’s visit to Rome’s synagogue in January. It showed, he said, that this pontificate is not departing from an established path. “We needed this sign otherwise all the polemics, all the stories, would damage the atmosphere,” he said. “This showed us that the Church wants to go on.”
As for the future, the Holy Father and Fr. Hofmann are planning on reaching out to young Catholics and Jews, and Orthodox Christians, encouraging them to work closer together.
It seems, therefore, that even though relations have had their trying moments over these past five years, a good deal of optimism and warmth remains. And Benedict XVI, who has always been committed to improving relations, continues to garner respect.
“[Benedict XVI] is the Pope we have to deal with,” said Rabbi Di Segni. “But it’s an honor to deal with him, notwithstanding all the difficulties.”
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