New book shows Pope’s commitment to Jews and Israel

Benedict XVI says he calls Jews ‘fathers in the faith’ rather than ‘elder brothers’ to avoid biblical Esau connotation.

pope benedict xvi 311 (photo credit: AP)
pope benedict xvi 311
(photo credit: AP)
Light of the World – the Pope, the Church and Signs of the Times was launched this week in eight languages as “the first personal and direct interview” with a pope ever.
In a Platonic format of questions and answers, the conversation, deftly guided by German journalist and author Peter Seewald, was recorded last summer at the pontiff’s summer residence near Rome. It provides a lively guide to Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on all the major dilemmas of his papacy and times. Seewald leaves no holes in the story, presenting his illustrious interviewee (and readers) with an accurate portrait of public opinion.
Holocaust survivors dismayed by Pope's praise of Pius
Miniseries glorifying wartime Pope Pius decried
Joseph Ratzinger, the man and the Pope, replies without reticence, revealing the reflective and unpretentious traits of his personality and an unusual capacity to listen respectfully.
He makes no attempt to hide the uncertainties and errors behind the series of crises that have marked his papacy, optimistically transforming them into a learning process from which he believes the Church will benefit.
Interspersed throughout the book – amidst talk about his world vision, self-doubts about his public role, ecology, God, good and evil, original sin, the contradictions of modernity and contemporary atheism, sex, bioethics, AIDS, condoms, abuse scandals, mission, ecumenism and interreligious relations – Benedict XVI speaks extensively on issues related to Israel and the Jewish world, confirming his unwavering personal commitment to both. He also explains the reasons for his conviction that Pius XII was “one of the great righteous men,” but without advocating further moves toward proclaiming him a saint.
Ratzinger holds true to his belief in the “intrinsic unity of the Old and the New Covenant, the two parts of the Holy Scripture,” an awareness he says he acquired “since the very first day” of his early theological studies. He first made his theological views on Judaism public in 1990, when as the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was interviewed in “Jews and Judaism in the Universal Catechism,” a piece published simultaneously in Studi Cattolici (in Italian) and Midstream (in English).
He says, “We can read the New Testament only together with what preceded it, otherwise, we would completely fail to understand it.”
These affirmations implicitly contradict and override the statements made by individual Middle East Bishops at the recent Vatican Synod regarding Christ’s having “annulled” the Abrahamic covenant.
Turning to a personal and historic perspective, he says, “As Germans, we were of course shaken by what had happened in the Third Reich, which gave us a special reason to look with humility and shame and with love, upon the People of Israel.”
He explains why he no longer calls Jews “our elder brothers” but rather “fathers in the faith,” stating that “the phrase ‘elder brothers,’ which had already been used by John XXIII, is not so welcome to Jews. The reason is that, in the Jewish tradition, the ‘elder brother’ – Esau – is also the brother who gets rejected.”
Regarding the controversy over Benedict XVI’s decision to facilitate diffusion of the pre- Vatican II Latin mass and his rewrite of its prayer for the conversion of the Jews, Ratzinger says the mass represented “internal reconciliation with our own past.” But the original Good Friday prayer, he explains, “really was offensive to Jews” while “the new formulation… shifts the focus from a direct petition for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense to a plea that the Lord might bring about the hour of history when we may all be united.”
“So the polemical arguments with which a whole series of theologians assailed me,” he concludes, “are ill-considered, they do not accurately reflect the reality of the situation.”
On another issue, asked whether he would have signed the decree lifting the excommunication from the four Lefebvrian Bishops if he had known Bishop Williamson denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, Pope Benedict replied, “No. If I had known, the first step would have been to separate the Williamson case from the others. Unfortunately, though, none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with...
On our side, it was a mistake not to have studied and prepared the case more carefully.”
Ratzinger notes, “The dialogue can easily be damaged and is fragile. In the worldwide Jewish community… many people… immediately vouched for me… These people know me.
In that sense, a breakdown of the dialogue was out of the question. The greatest danger of such a breakdown was in Germany.”
In comparison, he felt much less tension during his trip to Israel, where “there was always a certain mutual trust. A knowledge that the Vatican stands by Israel, by the Jewish Community around the world, that we acknowledge the Jews as our fathers and brothers.”

His reference to Shimon Peres is worth quoting in full.
“I was very moved,” he says, “by the kind of cordiality with which President Peres, who is a major figure, welcomed me. He himself of course is burdened with difficult memories. You know that they locked his father in a synagogue that they proceeded to set on fire. But he approached me with great openness and with the knowledge that we are struggling for common values and for peace, for the shaping of the future, and that the question of the existence of Israel plays an important role in that struggle.
“On the whole I was met with great hospitality,” continues the pope. “I would say the security measures to protect me were almost excessive. In any case, the extent of the protection I was afforded was enormous.”
He recalls having done “something that had not been possible with John Paul II” – celebrating two major liturgies – “a very beautiful one in Jerusalem” and a “very moving” one in Nazareth, which was “a great, visible manifestation of Christian faith in the State of Israel.”
Further on in the book, Ratzinger strongly defends the image of Pius XII who, he says, “saved thousands of Jewish lives… by ordering the convents and cloisters of Rome to open their doors – something only the Pope himself can do – and declaring them extraterritorial.”
Had Pius XII “protested publicly, the Germans would have ceased to respect extraterritoriality and the thousands who had found a safe haven in the monasteries of Rome would surely have been deported,” he says.
“It just recently came to light” Ratzinger adds, “that Pacelli, already as Secretary of State, had written to all the bishops of the world in 1938, instructing them to take pains to ensure that visas were generously granted to Jews emigrating from Germany.”
Ratzinger holds that Pius XII did not “protest more clearly” because “he saw what consequences would follow from an open protest. We know that personally he suffered greatly because of it. He knew he actually ought to speak out, and yet the situation made that impossible for him.”
Although he never mentions the beatification process, Pope Benedict XVI’s final statement on Pius XII is one of strong personal appreciation.
He says, “I believe that he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.”