A papal plea for harmony

October 17, 1997

The Pope says it is time for Catholics to atone for their past sins, particularly 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. Paul Bompard reports

Late last month, almost 400 academics and theologians gathered in Rome's Gregorian University to discuss "Good and Evil after Auschwitz". Held in the Jesuits' global nerve centre, it was the first event in a campaign instigated by Pope John Paul II to force the Catholic Church to make amends for its past sins; in particular, for 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

For most Catholics, the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 will be the triumphant celebration of 2,000 years of Christianity. But John Paul II has decreed that the holy year must also be the deadline for the Catholic Church to atone for anti-Semitism, the Spanish inquisitions, the persecution of Protestants and the silence of the Church during the Holocaust.

He has formed a special Pontifical Council of Vatican theologians and historians to draw up a document explicitly condemning anti-Semitism and charged a special commission to organise a series of conferences to discuss the Church's record of intolerance. The first conference, (October 28-November 2), is entitled "The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment." Another is set for late 1998 and should deal with the inquisitions, a third is scheduled for late 1999.

In November 1994, John Paul published an apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (The forthcoming third millennium). He wrote that, as the holy year approached, the Church "must lament the lack of discernment, which at times became even acquiescence, shown by many Christians concerning the violation of fundamental human rights by totalitarian regimes."

The 77-year-old Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, grew up in a country in which Catholic anti-Semitism was virulent and where he saw most of his Jewish friends disappear into the Nazis' death-camps. His campaign follows a surprisingly brief history of Catholic reconciliation towards Judaism which began with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when it was officially established that the Jews must not be blamed for the death of Christ. The current Pope is determined to strengthen the credibility of the Church, to eliminate everything that critics of Catholicism can point to as injustices. In 1986 he went to Rome's main synagogue, embraced Rabbi Elio Toaff and knelt in prayer. It was the first time a pope had ever set foot in a Jewish temple. In 1979, soon after his election, the Pope prayed at Auschwitz. In 1994 he established diplomatic relations with Israel. His recent official rehabilitation of "heretics" like Galileo and Darwin may appear almost quaint, but is significant. Recently, in Paris, he asked forgiveness for the 1572 massacre of the Huguenots, and in Italy he asked forgiveness from the survivors of Italian Protestantism persecuted over the centuries.

Father Georges Cottier, the Swiss Dominican who is papal theologian and president of the commission preparing the three conferences, says that they "will be an examination of conscience among Christians. In the first, we will examine the Gospel of St John, in which the Jews are described as enemies of Christ. What till now has been seen as a condemnation of the Jews may, in fact, have been a mistranslation or misinterpretation. The discussions will be primarily among Catholic theologians from all over the world, with delegations from other Christian religions as observers." But an inevitable question must be why the Catholic Church does not intend to invite any representatives of Judaism to the first of the three conferences.

Aharon Lopez, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, says: "John Paul II must be given credit for having encouraged awareness of the Shoah and of the need to combat all forms of anti-Semitism." But, he adds, "there is a long way to go... these decisions... must be spread to every priest, every little church, every single Catholic."

Peter J. Hass, the American academic and theologian, says he has been impressed "by how the revised Jesuit teaching on Judaism has taken hold in local churches (in the US). Of course it will take time to percolate down everywhere, but the fact that the Pope himself is pushing gives it great authority." And Angel Kreiman-Brill, chief rabbi of Santiago, Chile, and lecturer in ecumenism at Chile University, says: "I feel it is a real change. Of course there are exceptions - rightwingers. But then we too have our rightwingers. In Latin America I've had good experiences, especially with young priests who feel the weight of shame for what their church did in the past." Dr Kreiman-Brill recently suffered what he calls a "personal Shoah" when his wife was killed in the bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires.

Daniele Garrone is a pastor in the Italian Waldensian Church and lecturer on the Old Testament in Rome's Waldensian Faculty of Theology. Over the centuries, the Waldesian Protestants were repeatedly persecuted in the name of the church of Rome. Garrone feels: "The real problem today is not to condemn the deviant behaviour of the past, but to eliminate the theological origins of that behaviour. It must be made plain in the everyday teaching of the Church that Christianity has not 'superseded' Judaism and that the Jewish path to salvation is as valid as salvation through Christ. It must be stated clearly that Protestants have exactly the same theological legitimacy as Catholics. Otherwise the ideological justification for persecution remains."

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