Rome has left its traditional anti-Judaism well behind it


IN 1987 I was a member of a Jewish delegation received by Pope John Paul II in which the agenda was not the usual set speeches but an informal, unscripted discussion. The Jews presented their problems, which the Pope noted. But in his reply he concentrated on one subject - the Holocaust (he used - as always - the Hebrew word Shoah).

He spoke of his youth in a small town not far from Auschwitz, half of whose population was Jewish, of his learning during the war of the persecution of the Jews, and of his pain at the disappearance of his Jewish friends and eventual realisation that they had been killed.

He spoke with moving sincerity and there was no doubt in our minds that this is what motivated the gigantic steps made during the 20 years of his pontificate to develop mutual understanding with the Jewish people. On his many travels he has always made a point of meeting the representatives of local Jewish communities (where these still existed) and stretching out the hand of friendship.

He was not building from scratch. After 16 centuries of persecution of Jews, John XXIII - realising the role played by church anti-Semitism in creating an atmosphere in which the Holocaust became possible - introduced a revolutionary document at Vatican II which renounced anti-Jewish doctrines, denounced anti-Semitism and opened up a whole new language of discourse between the faiths.

His successor, Paul VI, developed these trends, abolishing missionary activities aimed at the Jews and calling for respect for Jewish self-definition.

One of the first statements made by John Paul II affirmed that God's ancient covenant with the Jews had never been abrogated - the opposite of traditional teaching. The way was now open to acknowledge that Judaism was not a fossilised and anachronistic faith but was a vibrant, living religion based on a true relationship with God.

Three major documents on relations with the Jews have been issued under John Paul II. The first, issued in 1985, expounded on a range of theological and historical problems which had soured Catholic attitudes down the ages.

It stressed the Jewishness of Jesus and his background, the positive role of Pharisaism in his thinking, suggested that the anti-Jewish elements in the New Testament may be retrojections of conflicts long after the time of Jesus, described the debt of Christian prayer to Judaism and affirmed that the Jews remain the Chosen People.

Shortly after this document was published the Pope made an unprecedented visit to the Rome synagogue, where he called the Jews "our elder brothers".

The second document was the 1993 agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel for the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

FOR decades no Vatican statement even mentioned the word "Israel". John Paul II was the first Pope to speak sympathetically of the State of Israel and of the Jews "who preserve in that State such precious testimonies to their history and faith".

With the inauguration of the Middle East peace process in 1991, the Holy See felt major changes were impending and did not want to be left out. So, jettisoning its previous official coolness towards Israel, its negotiations with the state soon came to positive conclusions and today there is a Holy See ambassador in Israel and an Israeli ambassador in the Vatican.

The subjects of the third document, which appeared a year ago, were anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It originated from Jewish criticism of the Pope's reception of Kurt Waldheim, a Nazi officer who later became president of Austria.

To calm feelings a document was promised on the Holocaust.

Under the Pope's guidance the church took an active part in the fight against anti-Semitism, with nuncios asked to report on anti-Semitic manifestations in places where they were serving and to report whether these were being adequately combated by the local clergy.

The 1998 document was forthright in its condemnation of anti-Semitism and on this subject it may be said that the church, instead of being part of the problem, has become part of the solution.

On the Holocaust, the Jews found the document less than satisfactory. It had been preceded by a series of statements from Episcopal Conferences in various countries on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the second World War.

These were forthright and uncompromising: the German church said: "The Church is a sinful church and in need of conversion"; the Dutch bishops spoke of "a tradition of theological and ecclesiastical anti-Judaism which contributed to the climate in which the Holocaust could take place"; most blunt was the French statement which apologised to the Jews, saying: "The bishops of France did not speak out. Today we confess that silence was a mistake."

The Vatican document avoided such statements; it stated the questions but fudged clear-cut answers on the subject of the responsibility of Christian teachings for the Holocaust atmosphere and the shortcomings of the church during the Holocaust.

There have been glitches during this period and certain acts of the Pope - such as his reception of Arafat when a terrorist leader and of Waldheim, or his beatification of the anti-Semitic priest Maximilian Kolbe and of Edith Stein, the nun who died at Auschwitz for her Jewishness, as well as the proposed beatification of the controversial Pius XII - have been badly received in the Jewish community. But the overall record is one of growing understanding.

Most recently the Pope has called for a jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land as well as Rome - a complete innovation.

Twenty years after his accession, the Catholic-Jewish agenda has changed completely. Instead of discussing pejorative theology, examples of anti-Semitism and the non-recognition of Israel, the discussions are now about education - how to ensure that the new relationship is brought down to grassroots level among both Catholics and Jews, and common action in such spheres as social issues and human rights.

Geoffrey Wigoder, a graduate of TCD, lives in Jerusalem and is currently on a speaking tour in Ireland. He is the Israeli delegate to the international Jewish body that engages in dialogue with the Vatican's Secretariat for Religious Dialogue with the Jewish People.