The pope I knew
Israel-Vatican relations during the papacy of Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict boards a plane at Ben Gurion, May 15, 2009 Photo: reuters
Two thousand years of complex history between Jews and Christians render unique the relations between the Vatican State and Israel that are similar to none in international relations. Though officially established in 1993 following the preparation of the Fundamental Agreement, the seeds of diplomatic relations were already sown in the “Nostra Aetate” document of 1965, designed by the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II (paragraph 4 of which absolves the Jewish people of the accusation of deicide).
The papacy of Benedict XVI had ups and downs in its relations with Israel. I am convinced that despite some criticism in the Jewish world and in Israel of occasional lack of sensitivity toward the Jews on the part of the Catholic Church (and the pope), Benedict XVI should be remembered as a pope who did much to bolster and develop the special, historic relations between the Church and its “Older Brothers,” the Jewish People, as well as with Israel.
I met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) a number of times, starting in October 2003 when he was in charge of the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church. He was tasked with updating the Compendium of the Catechism (the fundamental book of Catholic belief). I asked him if he would, in his capacity as the highest theological authority in the Vatican, include in the book paragraph 4 of the Nostra Aetate. He consented immediately.
The Compendium was meant to be published in April 2005 but in light of my request the Cardinal agreed to postpone to October 28, which marked the 40th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate proclamation.
The gesture the Cardinal was willing to make would have signified an important milestone in the complex relation-building process between Jews and Catholics.
On several occasions in 2004 and early 2005 Cardinal Ratzinger reiterated his promise as the final draft of the Catechism was underway.
On April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II died and Cardinal Ratzinger succeeded him and so was no longer in charge of the Compendium.
The book, published in June, did not contain the promised paragraph. I was later told someone pulled it out on the way to the typographer.
Pope Benedict XVI’s special relationship with the Jewish People and Israel was evident and manifest in many ways and on many occasions. In his years as leader of the Church he promoted and developed the inter-religious dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel initiated by his predecessor.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth the pope in a way made good on his earlier promise by absolving the Jews of the killing of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems he had a master plan to visit and identify with the three most meaningful crossroads of modern Jewish history.
The first leg was the site that symbolizes the pre- WWII period when, during his first visit abroad, he met in Cologne with the Jewish community at the synagogue that was destroyed during “The Night of Broken Glass” and rebuilt after the war. There he gave a speech about the unbreakable special bond between our two religions (he turned down an invitation by the Muslim community to visit them at the mosque).
In early 2006 came the second leg when he visited the death camp in Auschwitz, laying a wreath in memory of the millions of Jews who were burned to ashes in the Holocaust. Those survivors who came to Israel helped build the strong, democratic and independent Jewish State of Israel, and this was the third and final leg of the pope’s mission.
It is noteworthy that his decision to visit Israel went against the advice of the Vatican government. I was present on two occasions when the pope was invited: by Dalia Itzik (then communications minister) and by President Shimon Peres. On both occasions his reply was: “As you know, the list of requests for my visits abroad is very long, but Israel enjoys a priority.”
Israel-Vatican relations will very soon arrive at a turning point. The Fundamental Agreement (establishing the fiscal, legal and economic rights and duties of the Vatican, as well as issues of its properties in Israel) is about to be concluded.
This is an opportunity for an upgrade in our relations which will bring us closer to normalization (as mentioned, a historical challenge).
What is now needed is the beginning of a political dialogue based on an agreedupon agenda that should also include a joint fight against anti-Semitism (and anti-clericalism) and against terrorism and cooperation in the field of cultural, academic and economic affairs (pilgrimages). All this, on the basis of reciprocal visits between heads of state.
The future will tell whether or not the new pope will rise to the challenge, but what is clear is that both Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor laid a solid foundation for development of these relations.
The writer is an Israeli diplomat currently serving as diplomatic adviser to the Knesset.
He served as Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican until 2009.