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May 10, 2009

Pope’s visit to Holy Land time to remember friendship

By Rabbi Yehiel Poupko


The forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Israel (May 8-15) is a happy occasion for Catholics and Jews. It is also an occasion for Jews and Catholics in Chicago to not only share in that happiness but to acknowledge how the relationship between our faith communities has been strengthened by the gracious leadership of His Eminence Francis Cardinal George.

The Jewish-Catholic relationship is a long and complex one. It has had some very painful moments. Like all good friendships there will continue to be differences. However, too often we humans don’t take the time when there is something really wonderful to appreciate its goodness. So let’s do that.

This visit of the pope builds upon, and is inspired by, the previous visit of Pope John Paul II. It is important for both our communities to remember one of the great highlights of that visit. He went to the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, where he visited the Western Wall — the place to which Jewish prayer and yearning have been directed since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, the place that represents the ongoing attachment of the Jewish people to the Land, that marks the site of Israel’s redemption, and celebrates the ineffable experience of moving from Auschwitz to Jerusalem in but a few years. He prayed in a written note placed in the wall:

“God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations; We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer; and asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Jerusalem, 26 March 2000. Joannes Paulus II”

Pope John Paul II’s prayer at the Western Wall was remarkable, for it proclaims to the faithful that:

The children of Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people, continue to have a sacred religious purpose to bring the name of the One God to the nations;

Anti-Semitism was an offense against God, because it caused “these children of Yours to suffer;”

Christians need forgiveness for the suffering that has been brought to the Jewish people;

The phrase “We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant” means that while the Catholic Church seeks good relations with all faith communities, it has a unique and special relationship with the Jewish people, without whom the church cannot understand its very self. This is evoked in the word “brotherhood;”

Most significantly, the pope referred to the Jewish people as “the people of the Covenant.” In other words, the covenant that God made with the Jewish people in the Torah, at Sinai, is not superceded and nullified.

Benedict XVI, in recent comments to a delegation of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to the Vatican, on March 12, set the stage for his forthcoming visit to the State of Israel and to the Holy Land. He noted that “the Jewish people, who were chosen as the elected people, communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the One unique and true God.” He spoke in the present tense, ‘communicate.’ This is an affirmation of the continued sacred vocation of the Jewish people.

Then the pope went on to say, “as Psalm 125 brings to mind, God protects his people: ‘As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people, from this time forth and forever more.’” The pope’s recognition of the Jewish people’s unique relationship to Jerusalem is deeply valued.

As I write these lines we, the Jewish people around the world, are celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence day, the 61st birthday of the State of Israel. It is just six decades since Israel rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust. It is little more than four decades since the Roman Catholic Church declared anti-Semitism a sin and called for the Catholic faithful to understand and appreciate Judaism and the Jewish people.

So much has happened in both our communities in this relatively short period of time. One thing is very clear, that in this period since Vatican II, the Catholic Church and its popes have kept their promise to us. Within a period of nine years, for two popes to visit the Jewish people, restored to their own ancient homeland, is a display of the church’s commitment and friendship.

Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.