Pope missed a chance to build a bridge

Published 8:12 pm Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What an opportunity was missed at Pope Benedict XVI’s first official visit to the Jewish state! After all, this is a Pope with a German identity who was a member of the Hitler Youth Group and even served in the German army during WWII, though he deserted. Thus when the Pope spoke at Jerusalem’s Yad Va’Shem Holocaust Memorial, failing to mention Germany and Nazism by name, it was bound to raise eyebrows.

Did his advisors mistakenly take lightly the profound meaning of a complex encounter laden with poignant symbolism and every word counting? Or perhaps they attempted to distance his German background from exposure to the Holocaust’s shadow and Israel’s reality.

It is conceivable that they also had another goal in mind. In the week of Israel’s 61st anniversary, the Pope seemed more concerned with the problematic issue of Palestinian statehood than with reflecting on the dangers facing the surviving remnant of the Jewish people.

Email newsletter signup

It appears he was making up to the Muslim world for his arousing remarks on Islam and its prophet, which inflamed many. Ignored was the role of radical Islam, as well as Iran’s open challenge — along with its proxies, Hamas and Hizbollah — to Israel’s very existence.

It was surely a delicate balancing act in a mine-filled political environment that demanded considerable attention to glaring priorities. The Shoah’s immense destruction of the Jewish potential continues to threaten Israel’s future, charging the Pope’s Germany as well as his church with a responsibility for its well-being.

The Shoah was made possible because of the Church’s past tradition of fomenting anti-Jewishness, targeting the very people that gave birth to its central figure, and nourishing Christian Europe’s anti- Semitism which is rising again, abetted by the growing Muslim presence.

The Vatican did so little in those dark years to raise its moral voice in opposition to Hitler’s evil. How baffling that in the sacred confines of Yad Va’Shem, the Pope did not mention the significant number six million, which is under attack by Holocaust revisionists, and referring to the victims as killed rather than murdered which they were.

The 2000 historic visit of the much beloved Polish Pope John Paul II, the first official one by a Pope to Israel, is gratefully remembered for conciliatory gestures of genuinely reaching out to a victimized people.

Admittedly, it was a hard act to follow. Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger elevated to become Pope Benedict XVI, who assisted in historical breakthroughs offering renewed hope that are now being undermined.

The recent reinstatement by the Pope of a renegade Bishop who is a rabid Holocaust denier, only to reverse his decision under pressure, along with other new policies, endanger the great strides taken by The Second Vatican Council of the 60s.

It was the spirit of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II’s bold initiatives that allowed for my young congregation to spend 1985 to 1995 in the midst of the gracious Catholic Church of the Ascension in Virginia Beach, and to have Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler with us on Yom Kippur, 2000, in our synagogue.

Granted that the numerical decline of the Christian community in the Middle East worries the Vatican, but the core problem is Arab Muslim rejection of both Jewish and Christian presence in their midst, as the tragedy of Lebanon demonstrates. The bitter lessons of history and the Holocaust have taught us that appeasement only empowers the aggressor.

Pope Benedict XVI could use the vast authority of his high office as the revered Holy Father of a billion Catholics to turn his trying past into a powerful source of healing and reconciliation. There is much at stake, and urgent interfaith dialogue is called for among the three great monotheistic religions, that their shared message of shalom may yet prevail.