Pope Benedict XVI met this morning at the Vatican with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In the wake of his decision to lift the formal excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops, one of whom has denied the Holocaust, it was important that Benedict hit the right note. As is often the case, the Holy Father played an entire symphony of right notes.
Benedict began by recalling the memory of happy meetings with rabbis and other Jewish leaders during his visit last year to the United States and on his first papal visit to Cologne. He recalled, too, his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the horror of that place and the crimes committed there: He had made the somber pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that leaves no human heart untouched by the deepest pangs of shame, pain, and fright. These recollections amounted to an invitation to see the present controversy in the context of a relationship that is greater than one miscalculation. These men of faith know each other and respect each other and each others’ history, and no one should be rushing to judgment against one another.
Secondly, the Holy Father beautifully recalled that the roots of Christianity are inextricably intertwined with Judaism. "Indeed, the Church draws its sustenance from the root of that good olive tree, the people of Israel, onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles (cf. Rom 11: 17-24). From the earliest days of Christianity, our identity and every aspect of our life and worship have been intimately bound up with the ancient religion of our fathers in faith." He did not explicitly say it, and I do not think Pope Benedict is inclined to speak in psychological terms, but these words of his suggest that a Christian anti-Semite is in some sense filled with self-hatred, which is always the most pernicious hatred to root out because its roots are so mired in unreasonableness.
Finally, the Pope said that the Shoah must continue to animate our memories because threats to human dignity persist. It is not enough to remember in a passive way. Memory must serve as a warning to the future. This most central theme of contemporary Jewish life and identity has special poignancy coming from any Catholic Pontiff, but especially from one born in Germany, as it did coming from a Pope born not far from Auschwitz. Benedict recalled Pope John Paul’s visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and made his own his prayer for forgiveness for all the crimes perpetrated against God’s chosen people through the centuries.
In the life of faith, great advancements do not usually come from an entirely new source so much as they do from a new way of looking at an ancient source. Thus did the Second Vatican Council renew the Church by reaching back to the Patristic theology of the early centuries of the Church. Thus does the Shoah become not a historical shame but a current reality, animating us to a deeper respect and love for our Jewish brothers and sisters and a greater awareness of the threats to human dignity that plague us still.
Many years ago, the most learned priest I know, Father J. Augustine DiNoia, OP, was preaching at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on Good Friday. The readings of that day include the great Ur-text of anti-Semitism when the Gospel of Matthew reports that the Jewish elders of the day said of Jesus, "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children." Father DiNoia did not focus on the ways that the blood libel against the Jews contradicted other principles of Christian morality. He pointed out that, of course, we want that blood on us and upon our children for we believe that it is Jesus’ blood that brings redemption. Suddenly, the potential of this Gospel text to invite anti-Semitism was erased, replaced with a challenge to us Catholics to rethink the long, and often criminal, ways we have treated Jews. The Pope did something similar in his meeting today, using the recent controversy to renew his commitment, and that of the Church, not only to dialogue with Jewish leaders, but to a profound love of our elder brothers in faith, the chosen people, Israel.