Antonio Franco 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The Vatican's representative to the Holy Land on Monday played down the controversies that could mar a visit next week by Pope Benedict XVI: the conduct of a wartime predecessor, a Roman Catholic prayer for converting the Jews and the church's perceived lenience toward a Holocaust-denying bishop.
A papal visit to the Holy Land is not the time to "quarrel for this or that," said Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel.
The pope is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories on May 11-15. It's only the second official papal visit to Israel and comes nine years after a groundbreaking trip by Pope John Paul II, who moved many by praying at the Kotel.
Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel's leading voices in interfaith relations, portrayed Benedict as a good friend of the Jews and described differences with him as "an issue of style rather than an issue of substance."
Franco said a joint Jewish-Catholic commission was working hard to resolve the controversy over whether Pius XII, the pope who reigned during World War II, did enough to try to stop the Holocaust - the issue that has emerged as perhaps the most difficult in relations between the two religions.
"We are widening the vision and the understanding of a very difficult period of history," Franco said at a news conference in Jerusalem. "For sure this will not be an issue of discussion on the visit of the Holy Father."
Rosen, who held a news conference right after Franco's, had a different take.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in passing" during Benedict's visit, he said.
At issue is a caption under a photo of Pius at Yad Vashem alleging that he did not protest as Nazis rounded up Jews in Europe and sent them to their deaths.
Benedict has referred to Pius as a "great" churchman and the Holy See insists he used quiet diplomacy to try to help Jews. In September, he praised what he called Pius' "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews.
"Wherever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in their favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church," Benedict said. A movement inside the church has been seeking Pius' beatification for the past 25 years - stirring great opposition among Jews.
"It's not the business of the Jewish people to tell the Catholic church who its saints are," said Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee's Department for Inter-religious Affairs and is the first Orthodox rabbi to receive a papal Knighthood.
However, he said making Pius a saint "would be seen as some sort of whitewashing of the period of the Shoah."
Two other controversies have also caused tensions with Jews during Benedict's tenure. Earlier this year, the pope lifted the excommunication of a bishop who had denied the Holocaust. He later acknowledged mistakes by the Vatican in reaching out to the renegade.
Benedict's 2007 decision to relax restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass also caused consternation by restoring to prominence a prayer for the conversion of the Jews recited during Easter Week.
Franco on Monday said both those issues have been resolved, stressing that Catholics do not pray for the conversion of Jews.
"We leave to God the conversion," he said.
Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in the early 1990s, but they still must resolve a number of issues such as the status of church property in the Holy Land and tax exemptions for the church.
Benedict's visit to Israel is also imbued with a certain poignancy because he is German. As a teenager named Joseph Ratzinger, he served in the Hitler Youth movement, though he has written that the Nazis forced him to do so.
Both Franco and Rosen on Monday denied reports that Benedict's decision not to visit Yad Vashem's museum section had something to do with the Pius controversy.
Like most dignitaries visiting Israel, Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem memorial and is scheduled to meet with Holocaust survivors there.
During his visit, the pope will also head to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in addition to visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
He will hold open air masses in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Benedict has a strong record in building Catholic-Jewish relations. He has visited the Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland and synagogues in Germany and the United States.
Rosen, who has known Benedict for many years, said the pope at one point told him that Jews "are the living roots of the Church."
"It's an important comment and he deeply believes in it," Rosen said.