As Pope Benedict announces resignation, Jewish leaders praise improvement in Jewish-Christian relations under his leadership, and for good reason

Pope Benedict XVI places a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 12, 2009. (photo credit: Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI places a note in the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 12, 2009. (photo credit: Reuters)

UPDATED: As the news broke Monday of Pope Benedict’s decision to resign, I have been encouraged to see Israeli leaders and Jewish leaders around the world expressing appreciation for the signficant improvement in Jewish-Christian relations under his leadership.

Most importantly, “Pope Benedict XVI was the first chief pontiff to make a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a 2011 book,” notes the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews. While the Vatican had for five decades taught that Jews weren’t collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff was significant and would help fight anti-Semitism today.”

In his book on the life of Jesus, “the Pope walks the reader through  the gospels to explore who Jesus’ accusers really were,” reported Time magazine. “Noting that the Gospel  of John describes them as ‘the Jews,’ Benedict explains that there’s no way the  writer meant the entire population of Israel. After all, he notes, John himself was a Jew, as were Jesus and the rest of his followers. ‘This expression has a precise and rigorously limited meaning,’ Benedict concludes: ‘the temple aristocracy.'”

In my view, this will be his most important legacy — truly a game-changing moment in the progress of Jewish-Christian relations.

Consider more of the coverage from 2011:

What’s more, in 2009 he became only the second Pontiff to visit Israel. (The first was Pope John Paul II in 2000, who was truly a pioneer in healing relations between Catholics and Jews.)

In 2006, Pope Benedict visited the death camp at Auschwitz. “He displayed as much sensitivity as John Paul famously did in reaching out to the victims of the Holocaust,” noted Andrew Nagorski in a column in the Wall Street Journal. “On a visit to Auschwitz in 2006, Benedict agonized aloud about the difficulty of saying the right thing: ‘To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible—and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany.’ He was acutely conscious of the fact that, as he put it, he was ‘a son of the German people.'”

“Official diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican began in 1993 during the Papacy of John Paul II, marking a major a step toward Jewish-Catholic reconciliation from long-standing wounds,” notes Haarez. “Many Jews in Israel and elsewhere believe, for example, that Holy See should have played a greater historical role combating anti-Semitism. Especially controversial is the claim by Jews and others that during the Holocaust Pope Pius XII failed to do all he could to stop the extermination of European Jews. In recents decades, relations between the Jewish State and the Catholic Church have warmed up but significant differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have increased the tension at times.”

The Pontiff will leave office on February 28th for health reasons, and is the first Pontiff since 1415 to resign the office rather than passing away in it.

Some quotes from a Reuters article I found noteworthy:

  • Israel’s Chief Rabbi praises Pope Benedict: “Following the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation on Monday, Israeli chief [Asheknazi] rabbi Yona Metzger praised his inter-religious outreach and said relations between Israel and the Vatican had never been better,” Reuters reports. “‘During his period (as pope) there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will  continue,’ a spokesman quoted Metzger as saying after the pope announced he would resign. ‘I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.'”
  • Britain’s Chief Rabbi praises Pope Benedict: “Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also responded to Monday’s announcement, praising the pope’s character and recalling a meeting they had in 2011,” notes Reuters. “‘I was honored to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Britain on behalf of non-Christian faiths in 2010 and spend time with him during a visit to the Vatican in 2011,’ he said. ‘I saw him to be a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm, a deeply thoughtful and compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom. I wish him good health, blessings and best wishes for the future,’ Rabbi Sacks added.”
  • World Jewish Congress President praises Pope Benedict: “Joining the chorus of voices, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder issued a statement: ‘It is with great emotion that we learned today that Pope Benedict XVI will retire at the end of this month. His decision deserves our greatest respect….The papacy of Benedict XVI elevated Catholic-Jewish relations onto an unprecedented level. Not only did he maintain the achievements of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and give the relationship solid theological underpinning but, more importantly, he filled it with meaning and with life….From beginning to end, Pope Benedict XVI has shown skillful leadership. He realized that the public Holocaust denial by church leaders must not go unanswered, and he spoke out against it….He always had an outstretched hand and an open ear for Jewish leaders.”

While as an evangelical I have differences with Roman Catholicism, I am very grateful for the pro-active efforts Pope Benedict made personally and theologically to heal past wounds between Catholics and Jews. These were much needed, and long overdue.

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