May 2, 2013
Judging from events that took place this week in Italy and in Israel, relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People seem to promise an all time high.
While Israel’s President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis in Rome, the 12th meeting of the Bi-Lateral Commission of the Holy See and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel was held in Jerusalem, dedicated to honoring and celebrating the memory of Pope John XXIII 50 years after his death. The international conference discussed “his historic role in transforming the attitude and teaching of the Catholic Church towards the Jewish people, based on mutual respect and affirmation of the eternal Covenant between God and Israel in keeping with the declaration Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council.”
The conference was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the study of Contemporary European Jewry and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Speakers from the Vatican and the Catholic Church included among others, Cardinal Kurt Koch, Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem H.B. Fouad Twal, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa - Custos of the Holy Land, and Prof. Alberto Melloni. Jewish speakers included scholars from Israeli and European Universities, Yad Vashem, Chief Rabbi of Haifa Emeritus - She’ar Yashub Cohen, Dr.Amos Luzzatto - the former President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and Rabbi David Rosen - AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs.
Different sessions were dedicated to Roncalli and the Shoah; the Establishment of the state of Israel; Vatican II and Nostra Aetate; the Legacy of John XXIII for Christian- Jewish Relations in Europe and the World.
Commenting on the Conference, Rabbi Rosen said, “It exceeded all expectations and created tremendous excitement. A throng of people gathered outside the packed room, many sitting on the stairs. They could have filled a hall twice the size of ours. There was enormous interest on all levels, which is a tribute to the changing of attitudes regarding Catholic-Jewish relations.”
Significantly, the final Joint Declaration stressed the “importance of educating the respective religious communities about the nature, substance and significance of these changes” and called on Israel’s Ministry of Education plus the Holy See’s Congregation for Catholic Education “to explore ways and means of how these developments can become an integral part of the required syllabus of educational institutions under their respective authorities.” It also pointed out that “The mutual respect and friendship between us over recent years brings responsibility to present each other the way each sees themselves and defend the wellbeing of each other’s communities” - with special responsibilities of the religious majority for the minorities in each country.
After the Conference, the Bi – Lateral Commission presented the Declaration to the Speaker of the knesset, Yuri Edelstein, drawing his attention to the special appeal regarding education.
Noting Pope Francis’ “past well-known engagement and friendship with the Jewish Community in Buenos Aires in particular” the Commission stated it “looks forward to the continuation and deepening of Christian-Jewish relations during his papacy, following on from the historic strides of his predecessors.”
The same message of reciprocal friendship and solidarity was expressed a day later during the encounter between Pope Francis and President Peres --- who sent a message of greeting to the Jerusalem Conference, noted with satisfaction by the Commission.
Pope Francis raised the issue of anti-Semitism in the world and made clear that anti-Semitism goes against the beliefs of Christians and “must be opposed in every country and corner of the globe. As Pope, I will not tolerate any expression of anti-Semitism.”
With reference to the role of religions in ushering in peace, President Peres noted that “Sadly, there are many religious leaders in the Middle East and across the world who advocate terror and bloodshed and do so in the name of the Lord. We all have an obligation to stand up and say in a loud and clear voice, that the Lord did not give anyone the authority to murder and carry out bloodshed. Your voice” he said to Pope Francis, “has a great impact in the matter."
Francis suggested creating a global meeting of hope with the leaders of all the world’s faiths to produce a united message against violence and terror.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner extended a warm invitation to Pope Francis to visit Israel, affirming his certainty that the Pope would be “warmly received by all Israelis” because “they see in you a leader of peace and good will. The sooner you visit, the better, as in these days a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace.”
Francis thanked him and said he greatly wishes to visit Israel and would “try to find time to do so in the near future.”
President Peres explained he believed “there is a chance to open negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and that Abu Mazen is a genuine partner for peace. The Ministers of the Arab League once again expressed their support for a two state solution, which is also accepted by us, and a broad structure of support is being created for making progress.”
Regarding more “political” issues, Israel’s President was received by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, its “Foreign Minister” Dominique Mamberti, by the President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano, Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, and Italy’s new Premier Enrico Letta. Discussions centered on Middle East trouble spots such as Syria and Iran. President Peres expressed Israel’s appreciation for the ongoing excellent relations with Italy and extended invitations to visit Israel.
After meeting Italian Jewish community leaders, Shimon Peres wound up his stay with a visit to Assisi where he was proclaimed “honorary citizen”. There Israel’s President and Nobel Peace Prize winner grasped the opportunity to thank the town for what its Bishop and Friars did to save over 300 Jews from the Nazi-Fascist persecutions of World War II, providing refuge for all. “Four priests and friars were named among the Righteous of Yad Vashem for having risked their lives to save our brethren” he said. “On behalf of Israel, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”