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SIDIC Periodical XXXIV - 2001/1
One Year Later (Pages 4-5)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Papal Visit to Israel : A Great Symbol
Henrix, Hans Hermann


Excerpts from Die katholische Kirche und das jüdische Volk (The Catholic Church and the Jewish People).

The liturgy with the request for pardon on the First Sunday of Lent (2000) in St. Peter’s had not completely met Jewish anticipation for an unambiguous acknowledgment of guilt. For this purpose the liturgy and its context were, no doubt, too far removed from the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II himself had to “draw near” in order to overcome the existing hurdle. This came about during the days of his visit in the Holy Land from March 20 to 26. The pilgrimage was – if one looks beyond the staging and folklore – a great symbol.

The prayer, the content of which is identical with the fourth prayer for forgiveness of March 12 and which is kept with the Pope’s signature in the Holocaust Memorial, can now be effective in a new way. It has been freed from a more limited focus on the Church’s recognition of guilt in the context of the Shoah. Thereby it becomes possible, for example, for Jews to hear in the statement the Pope calling Jewish men and women “sons and daughters” of God, after the Church had denigrated them for centuries as sons of the devil. Further, the recognition of the Jewish mission to bring the name of God to the nations will bear the same importance as their portrayal as “people of the covenant.” These formulations breathe the same spirit as the Good Friday intercession for the Jews which enables Catholic congregations to pray year after year that “they may continue to grow in the love of God’s name and in faithfulness to his covenant.”

In particular, the two “stations” of the Pope’s visit – at Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall – have begun a healing process in the Catholic-Jewish relationship. The Jewish pain due to “the tumor in the memory” (Emmanuel Levinas) was to some extent alleviated. Once again Pope John Paul II was successful in symbolically conveying a basic message. Few words are needed to interpret the symbol of the bent figure in white at the Western Wall, the ha Kotel ha Ma'aravi, the silent prayer and the prayer for forgiveness left in the crevice. It reaches the Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. They understand that symbol and gesture are more open and all-embracing than theological expressions and Church doctrine. They are moved in spite of the fact that Pope John Paul II did not enter into an open discussion of his understanding of the Church, which makes a clear distinction between the Church as such (i.e., as Christ's undefiled bride) and the “sons and daughters” of the Church and their failure and sins.

Ongoing Responsibilities

After the papal journey to Israel there are responsibilities which the Church itself has to assume and fulfill. The first is a need for the Church to take up and make its own the papal interest in and esteem for the Jewish people. With regard to Church’s relationship with the Jews and Judaism, Pope John Paul II is a “forerunner” and an example for the ecclesial community and all its members. The restoration of this very burdened relationship needs healing and the new beginnings on all levels must be in accord with this papal action.

Besides shedding further light on the activities of Pius XII during the years of National Socialism, Christian theology has to continue ecclesiological reflection and discussion: Is it necessary to distinguish between sin in the Church and sin of the Church in a manner which suggests that sin of the Church does not exist, as the International Theological Commission seems to imply? Or is sin a power which affects the church’s mission as community and/or complex reality, in which human and divine elements coexist (LG 8), itself affected, limited and damaged, so that one has to also speak of a sinful Church, thereby connoting an asymmetry in which the holiness and sinfulness of the Church is held in balance by God?

However there also are Christian expectations of the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II addressed this twice on his Israel journey. On March 21, during the welcome ceremony at the airport of Tel Aviv he applied the need for peace to the Catholic-Jewish relationship:

With a new-found openness towards one another, Christians and Jews together must make courageous efforts to remove all forms of prejudice. We must strive always and everywhere to present the true face of Jews and Judaism, as likewise of Christians and of Christianity, and this at every level of attitude, teaching and communication.
In his address on March 23 at Yad Vashem he appealed:
Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in the faith.

This is a call to both Christians and Jews. On the part of Christianity there exists a form of “debt from the past” in relation to the Jewish people. And the Jewish people has to cope with the very understandable “hermeneutic of suspicion” towards the Church and Christianity. Future proceedings and events in the Church may also raise questions and cause irritation to Jews. Some of these irritations have already announced themselves via media reports concerning the movement to beatify Pius IX and Pius XII. If these beatifications come to pass, Pope John Paul II will have been personally involved. This will not, however, turn this friend of the Jewish people into its enemy. Though, of course, the art of prudent church interpretation will need to provide assurance that the intent of these processes – which are part of the Church’s self-determination – is not to be insensitive or anti-Jewish.

The Jewish people loves John XXIII. Talk of “the good Pope John” is very common among Jews. During his historical visit to the synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986, John Paul II described his own esteem of the Jewish people as assuming the heritage of John XXIII. With his prayer for forgiveness and his Israel pilgrimage he has fulfilled the assumption of this heritage. The hospitality shown to John Paul II, and the reception which his gestures and his speeches found – by the people of Israel and their representatives, as well as by the vast majority of people – all indicate that the Jewish people have now also grown to respect, esteem and love him as an honest friend.


* Hans Hermann Henrix is a member of the Jewish-Christian working goup of the Central Committee of German Catholics and adviser to the German Bishops’ Conference on Jewish-Christian Relations. The above excerpts have been reprinted, with permission, from Stimmen der Zeit, Heft 5, Juni 2000 and have been translated from German.


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