B’nai B’rith International welcomed Pope Benedict XVI’s overtures to the Jewish community during his visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on Jan. 17. But the pope’s apparent desire to avoid direct discussion of the most contentious issues straining Catholic-Jewish relations, such as beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII, was unfortunate.Honorary President Tommy Baer of Richmond, Va., led a B’nai B’rith delegation including Senior Vice Presidents Bruce Pascal of North Potomac, Md., and Yves-Victor Kamami of Paris, along with B’nai B’rith Rome President Sandro Di Castro, as guests at the synagogue.
The visit, the pope’s third to a synagogue since 2005, and coming soon after his 2009 pilgrimage to Israel, takes place at a critical time in Catholic-Jewish relations and helps to maintain a bond greatly strengthened since the mid-1960s.
Expressing the “esteem and affection” that he, “as well as the entire Catholic church, have towards this community and all Jewish communities around the world,” Benedict condemned “the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism,” and invoked “the singular and deeply disturbing drama of the Shoah.”
However, efforts to concretely address a series of foremost Jewish concerns were absent. Immediately after the pope’s address, Baer said: “While we acknowledge the historic importance of this visit and welcome the pope’s calls for mutual understanding and respect, we remain deeply disappointed that the pope chose not to address the question of the beatification of Pope Pius XII. If he did not want to publicly discuss it in his synagogue visit, he could have taken the opportunity to do so in the more private gathering with Jewish community leaders. It was obvious that he wanted to avoid the controversy.”
In principle, B’nai B’rith recognizes Catholic conferral of sainthood as an internal process of the church. At the same time, Baer noted: “We continue to believe that beatification is premature until the record of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during World War II can be examined. The continued failure of the Vatican to grant such access to the archives makes this impossible. One can only assume that if the record proved that Pius had discreetly saved the lives of Jews, the church would want to share that evidence.”
Baer, Pascal, and Kamami also attended the private gathering the pope held with about 30 Jewish leaders at the conclusion of the formal event.
Baer, who was born in Germany and came to the United States as a child, said, “If I had been able to speak to the pope, I would have done so in German, and asked him to open the Vatican archives.”
The beatification issue is only the most recent rift in the Catholic-Jewish engagement, which was already tense after the pope’s decision last year to overturn the excommunication of four bishops, including Richard Williamson, who publicly asserted that gas chambers were not utilized during the Holocaust and that no more than 300,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany. The pope later affirmed Vatican rejection of Holocaust-denial.
Meanwhile, in 2007, the pope’s decision to revive use of the Latin-language Tridentine Mass, as an alternative to the modern liturgy embraced over recent decades, greatly alarmed Jews and Catholics committed to continued interreligious reconciliation. The Latin liturgy includes a Good Friday prayer “for the conversion of the Jews.”
Riccardo Pacifici, the president of Rome’s Jewish community and a B’nai B’rith member, preceded the pope’s remarks at the synagogue with a call for a moment of silence for the victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. He requested international help, and noted that B’nai B’rith is undertaking a worldwide effort to assist the victims.