Rocky Times for Jewish-Vatican Relations

Israeli Priest Calls for Patience, Wisdom, Prayer

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By Karna Swanson

JERUSALEM, JAN. 30, 2009 ( The sources of tension in Jewish-Vatican relations are many, and Jesuit Father David Neuhaus calls this a moment for «patience, wisdom and prayer.»

Father Neuhaus, the secretary-general of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel, known also as the Association of St. James, told ZENIT he was «following with great sadness and anxiety the deterioration of relations between the Holy See and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.»

Relations between the two came to a breaking point this week in the wake of the Vatican’s announcement Saturday that lifted the excommunication of holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X.

The bishop claimed in an interview taped in November for Swedish television that historical evidence denies the gassing of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. He also alleged that no more than 300,000 Jews were killed during World War II.

Bishop Williamson was one of four prelates of the Society of St. Pius X who were illicitly ordained to the episcopate by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. The excommunication was also lifted for the other three Lefebvrite bishops, and was meant to be a step toward healing internal division within the Church caused by the ordinations some 20 years ago.

Father Neuhaus welcomed Benedict XVI’s statements Wednesday in which the Pope reiterated the position of the Church on the Holocaust by expressing solidarity with Jews and strongly condemning the use of concentration camps during World War II, which he said «carried out the brutal massacre of millions of Jews, innocent victims of a blind racial and religious hate.»


The Jesuit explained that the «Shoah and its memory is one of the most central issues in Jewish consciousness. Together with a sense of solidarity with the state of Israel, the Shoah defines who many Jews are in the world, how they define themselves.

«These two elements as identity markers might be even more important today for many Jews than issues connected with the religious and spiritual elements of the Jewish religion. They both touch on the question of Jewish survival in a world perceived very often as hostile.»
Father Neuhaus said the move to lift the excommunication of the Lefebvrite bishops «was perceived in Israel almost uniquely through the prism of the person of Bishop Williamson.»

Despite reports that the Rabbinate of Israel indefinitely severed ties with the Vatican, which were established in 2000 when Pope John Paul II visited Israel, the Pope’s words were favorably received by both Oded Wiener, the director-general of the Rabbinate of Israel, and the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy.

Weiner, called the statement «a big step forward,» and Lewy said he was «very happy for a declaration from such a high level by the Holy See that clarifies and helps to overcome these misunderstandings.»

The Vatican and the state of Israel have had their own, separate relationship since establishing diplomatic ties in 1993, and the current situation does not affect state relations.

Good Friday

Father Neuhaus also noted other developments leading to the current tensions, such as «the gestures that the Holy Father has made to traditionalists allowing the use of liturgical forms that Jews have seen as promoting ‘the teaching of contempt’ toward Jews and Judaism that the Church has repudiated.»

Jewish leaders contest the use of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews used in the «extraordinary rite.» It says: «Let us also pray for the Jews. That God our Lord should illuminate their hearts, so that they will recognize Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men.»

This prayer was released last February, following the July 2007 document «Summorum Pontificum,» which permitted an increased use of the 1962 Missal. The Good Friday prayer for the Jews used in the ordinary rite, that is, by the vast majority of Catholics, was not changed.

Father Neuhaus said as well that the «odious statements» of Bishop Williamson coincided with critiques of Israel regarding the Gaza offensive: «Some critics of Israel, including some Catholics, had made parallels between Gaza and the Nazi persecution of Jews, that Jews find not only unacceptable but particularly offensive.»

Additionally, the Jesuit cited worries on the part of Israel that the Holy Father might not travel to Israel in May as planned because of the Gaza offensive, or only travel there on the condition of finalizing the accords between the Holy See and the state of Israel.


«The sources of tension are many,» Father Neuhaus continued, «the room for misunderstanding is greater than usual. It should be noted that the Holy See has some very important allies in the Jewish community who are trying to serve as mediators in this crisis.»

The Jesuit noted that Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious Affairs, «one of the Orthodox rabbis most engaged in the dialogue between Catholics and Jews, has called for patience. He has explained to the Israeli public that he is sure that Pope Benedict is as committed to reconciliation with the Jewish people as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.»

«[Rosen’s] hope was that the Holy Father would clarify that Bishop Williamson’s views are completely incompatible with the teaching of the Catholic Church,» said Father Neuhaus.

«This is a moment where we need patience, wisdom and prayer,» he continued. «The Holy Father’s concern for unity is seen to be in tension with the concern of the Jewish people that under the guise of unity, persons will be embraced who have never accepted the progress made in the past 50 years.»

«May we hope and pray that the moment might come when the Jewish people and the Catholic Church might talk over differences in an atmosphere of profound friendship and trust rather than under the menace of the severing of relations,» the Jesuit concluded. «We continue to pray that this crisis too will pass.»

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