U.S. Jewish leaders praise Pope for improving relations but express their concerns

NEW YORK — When some two dozen Jewish leaders met with Pope John Paul II here after the Sabbath ended Saturday night, it appeared as though the meeting was more ceremonial than substantive.

However, the gathering gave Jewish leaders an opportunity to relay their concerns personally to the pontiff.

The post-Shabbat meeting also was an indication of how highly the pope values relations with the Jewish community, as he squeezed the gathering into his hectic four-day trip to the United States. The globe-trotting pope makes a point of meeting with local Jewish leaders wherever he travels.

When representatives of Jewish groups met with him in New York at the residence of the city's archbishop, Cardinal John O'Connor, they were meeting with the Catholic leader who has — more than any other pontiff — shaped the relationship between the two communities in a positive way.

This pope has a "long history of solidarity with the Jewish people," said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Anti-Defamation League's interfaith affairs department.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, of the Park East Synagogue in New York and the founder of the ecumenical group Appeal of Conscience, said he thanked the pope "for taking a stand on anti-Semitism and remembering the Shoah."

Schneier said, "His reply was, `We must always remember the lessons of the Shoah,' using the term `Shoah,'" the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who also attended the event, said the topic of an encyclical on anti-Semitism was raised in the meeting.

Jewish groups want the pope to issue an encyclical — embodying many of the things he has said previously — that would condemn anti-Semitism as a sin.

An encyclical is the highest level of interpretation a pope can issue. John Paul II has issued about a dozen during the 18 years of his papacy.

Such a document would be a "worthy capstone" to the pope's teachings, Rudin said.

Although the pope has maintained the Catholic Church's traditional positions on a host of issues, from contraception to the ordination of women, he has broken dramatically with the church's historical attitudes toward Judaism to reconcile with the community he has called "our elder brother in faith."

The relationship long has been colored by mutual suspicion and hostility. Today, say many of those involved with Catholic-Jewish dialogue, it is a relationship based on mutual respect.

Pope John Paul II has done a great deal to implement the Catholic document Nostra Aetate, which first articulated the notion of a "spiritual bond" linking the church to Judaism, they say. Nostra Aetate, or In Our Time, was produced by the Second Vatican Council and adopted in October 1965.

*Dozens of times, he has made healing speeches to, and about, the Jewish community, and publicly condemned anti-Semitism as a sin.

*The first pope to visit a Nazi death camp, he visited Auschwitz in 1979, making special reference to "the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination."

*He was the first pope to visit a synagogue. He went to a congregation in Rome in 1986.

*John Paul II was the first pope to commemorate the Holocaust formally, which he did with a tribute performance by Britain's Royal Philharmonic at the Vatican on Holocaust Memorial Day in 1994.

*Under his reign, the Vatican finally established formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, in December 1993.

The tone set by this pope has had an important trickle-down effect on the Catholic Church worldwide, say observers, though work remains to be done.

Both the German and Polish Catholic bishops conferences, for example, have issued documents apologizing for the role of Catholics in creating the horror of Nazism.

"It sets a tone and has tremendous impact on Catholic communities all over the world," said the ADL's Klenicki.

For centuries, Jews were viewed by Catholics through the prism of their liturgy, which portrayed them as the people who had rejected the revolutionary good news and salvation of Jesus' message, and as the people who had murdered their lord.

When Nostra Aetate was adopted 30 years ago, the church articulated a new approach toward non-Christian religions and devoted special attention to the Jews.

But it was not until 1978, when Pope John Paul II was elected to lead the Catholic Church, which has about 1 billion followers worldwide, that the new policy began to bear fruit.

Implementation has been slow. But most agree that the pope, through his words and his deeds, has set a dramatically different tone within the church.

Attitudes toward Jews "have gotten much better in 18 years. There have been two more decades of working on it with a pope pushing the agenda forward," said Eugene Fisher, the director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

For John Paul II, it has been a personal mission, rooted in his childhood friendships with Jewish classmates in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland, and his witnessing of their destruction, a few years later at the hands of the Nazis.

"No other pope in the long history of the Catholic Church has had so many contacts with Jews and Judaism," Klenicki said.

Despite all the gains, much work remains before all the obstacles between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community are overcome. There are areas that remain real obstacles to the dialogue, said Rudin and others.

They want the Vatican to open its archives dating from the Holocaust period to a joint team of scholars so that the church's role can finally be revealed.

In addition, said Rudin, the Vatican has in its possession a treasure trove of Jewish artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages.

"We should have a team of joint experts working together and going in a positive way to inventory them. And if something belongs to the Jewish community it should be returned," Rudin said.