- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

I was the maid of honor in the wedding of a Catholic girlfriend from my old high school. As part of the wedding party in a Catholic church and the only Jewish member in it I was asked to kneel during the ceremony with everybody else. It seemed to me the right thing to do.

Jews and Catholics alike were shocked. How could I compromise my religion? It seemed like a small accommodation to participate in such a felicitous occasion. I would have been considerably more conspicuous to be the only person in the wedding party left standing.

Rarely are religious differences resolved by such compromise. I thought about that wedding and my mini-accommodation while reading about the pope's visit to Israel. How remarkable, after the long history of uncompromising conflict between Catholics and Jews. Pope John Paul II describes his visit as a "personal spiritual journey" but of course, he's made it a spiritual journey for the rest of us, too.

More than any pope before him, John Paul has worked to heal wounds from the past for both Christians and Jews. He visited a synagogue in Rome, recited prayers for the Jews at Auschwitz, repented on behalf of Catholics who, unwitting or not, brought suffering to the Jews in the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Jews are aware of the significant role this pope played in accelerating the lifting of the Iron Curtain, which led directly to the liberation of Soviet Jews.

Pope John Paul recently opened volumes of research of Vatican diplomatic documents from the years 1939 to 1945 and invited a commission of three Jewish and three Catholic scholars. These are the sensitive years in which Pope Pius XII dealt with his Nazi overlords, and testify to John Paul's earnestness.

Many Jews say that Pius XII's failure to speak forcefully against the Nazis reflected anti-Semitism; others defend the pope for doing only what he thought he could accomplish. He remains a figure of ambivalence to Jews, many of whom regard him either as an unsympathetic cynic or an opportunistic weakling.

A half-dozen books (extensively reviewed in The New York Review of Books) are circulating about Pius XII and what he did during the war years. The best-known work, "Hitler's Pope," written by John Cornwell, a British journalist, is a bestseller. But its title is misleading. Whatever you think Pius should have done for the Jews, he despised the evil that was Hitler and Hitler hated him.

The Fuhrer frequently offered up a screed against the pope, threatening to kidnap him, clearing out "that gang of swine," and to occupy the Vatican. How you interpret the possibility of Hitler acting on that threat may determine how you interpret the action (or lack of it) of Pope Pius XII.

An Italian historian of the Holocaust tells how, in 1943, thousands of Jews marched past the Vatican en route to the train station where they were stuffed into boxcars for the one-way trip to the concentration camp. The pope knew where they were going. This hardly suggests a candidate for sainthood.

If Pius XII came late to help the Jews, he nevertheless did save some of them and the Vatican has letters from survivors to prove it. But no matter what he finally did, his early silence remains, for most Jews, an open wound which only Pope John Paul and the extensive Vatican archives can lead us to understand. One historian of the period says there is evidence that Pius XII regretted his "silence concerning the Nazis" and wondered whether his reluctance to confront the Nazis was "ill-conceived."

If the pope was less than heroic, many of his bishops, archbishops, priests and nuns in Italy saved 83 percent of the Italian Jews. The clergy were less successful in other European countries.

The Vatican has come a long way since it opposed the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Pope Paul VI is the only other pope to visit Israel (in 1964) and his 12-hour visit was less than ameliorating. In 1964 the Vatican did not even recognize the state of Israel and Paul VI refused to speak its name, for fear it would suggest recognition. Another 30 years would pass before the Vatican and Israel exchanged ambassadors.

The turning point in Jewish-Catholic relations was initiated by Pope John XXIII, who proposed an end to the myth that Jews killed Christ. Vatican II made that official in 1965. Pope John XXIII actually set the theological groundwork for respecting the people of the Old Covenant, as followers of a companion religion to his own.

Pope John Paul II set in motion the promise of a strong future relationship between Catholics and Jews as we enter the third millennium. Whether he succeeds is crucial to all of us.

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