(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
After a tense two millennia, the dry bones of the Nation of Israel coming back to life placed the Catholic Church in a predicament: How would it come to terms with the nascent reality that the prophecy of the Jewish people returning to their land was on its way to being fulfilled.
Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl had met with Pope Pius X on January 25, 1904, to ask for his help in establishing a Jewish state in the Holy Land.
The answer was a clear and decisive “no”: “‘Jerusalem, [Pius X] said, must not get into the hands of the Jews,’” Herzl wrote in a diary entry the day after.
“We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem – but we could never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, if it was not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”
From a basic perspective, Pius X may just have been continuing in the footsteps of his predecessors by declaring that a revival of the Jewish people would inherently contradict the dogma of the Catholic Church.
But the pontiff may have been ahead of his time, understanding that Zionism was alive and well, and the Catholic Church would eventually come to terms with this. He simply didn’t want to announce this out loud yet.
Pius X’s decision to meet with Herzl, understanding well in advance the purpose of the journalist's visit, must not be overlooked as lacking monumental significance. (The pope was the second audience that Herzl had while in Italy. Herzl had met two days prior with the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, who had mentioned that he had visited the Holy Land and expressed support and belief that a Jewish state would no doubt be established in the near future.)
It was Papal Count and official Vatican artist, B. Lippay who arranged the meeting with Pius X, which in all reality should never even have been considered. If Herzl had come knocking on the Vatican’s door asking the most powerful religious leader to change his beliefs, would Pius even have thought twice about letting such a hostile visitor speak with him?
Indeed Pius X’s language in his response, as documented by Herzl in his journal, is very cautious, but not dismissive. On the one hand, as head of the Church, he can’t support the Zionist movement. On the other hand, if this is truly God’s desire than “we cannot prevent” it.
In other words, the pope was laying out the challenge to Herzl: You want a Jewish state – let’s wait and see if God is on your side.
More than 100 years after this meeting, which seemingly didn’t produce any tangible results, the Holy See and the Zionist enterprise of the Jewish people’s national resurrection have full diplomatic relations, there is a framework for inter-religious dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the respective Pontifical Council, and the Vatican has assumed direct responsibility for local Catholic Churches within Israel’s territorial jurisdiction, among the many other steps the two sovereign entities have taken.
Whether knowingly or not, Pius X helped form the bridge between the unofficially sanctioned antisemitism of the first 1,900 years of the Common Era to the flourishing Catholic-Jewish reconciliation that has taken place in the past 60 years.
Yes, there were more stumbling blocks on the way to recognizing the divine spirit behind the Nation of Israel's revival, including the Vatican's silence during the Second World War, and even today there are still diplomatic, territorial and theological issues that the two sides have yet to resolve.
But gradually, with the establishment of the Second Vatican Council, the declaration of Nostra Aetate, and other reconciliations, formal relations could finally be established by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Anyone who knows the Bible can only come to the conclusion that the movement to create a Jewish state in Israel was God making the prophecies come to life. Pius X knew his Bible. He just wanted to wait see if Herzl was really part of these prophecies. Once this was made clear with the State of Israel's establishment, measures inside the Church could be taken to deal with this practically, and not just as a theoretical issue.
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