Sacramento bishop’s Holocaust apology raises hopes

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“He had the courage to say what he said publicly, which was basically something we’ve been waiting for some 50 years from the Catholic Church…I do believe this was indeed a historic moment.”

Speaking before 600 at the synagogue earlier this month, Bishop William K. Weigand made a dramatic pronouncement.

“As Catholic bishop of Sacramento, I declare before you my profound and anguished sorrow for all of the blood and tears that have been inflicted upon your people by those who were Catholics. In deep humility, I ask your pardon and forgiveness…I make our watchword, `Never again–forget not.'”

Taff and others who heard the bishop’s sermon felt his words went beyond a recent Vatican document that disappointed many Jews. That document acknowledged individual Catholic guilt in the Holocaust, but it absolved the church, as an institution, of complicity.

A front-page article in the Sacramento Bee about Weigand’s remarks led to widespread positive reaction among Jews and Catholics.

Deanne Canar, chair of the Sacramento area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said she hopes his words are more than just a personal statement.

“He was speaking in his official capacity, and I find it enormously significant,” Canar said.

But Weigand, who made his remarks during his guest sermon at Shabbat services on May 9, said the hundreds of positive responses to his sermon have surprised him.

“I didn’t think I was going beyond the statement of the Vatican commission,” he said Tuesday.

In fact, he doesn’t have the authority to make statements for the Vatican.

“I can’t speak for the pope. I can’t speak for the French bishops or the German bishops,” said Weigand, who oversees a half-million Catholics from Sacramento to Oregon. “I was just speaking for myself.”

Nor did he condemn Pius XII, the wartime pope. “I have a hard [enough] time judging myself for what I did yesterday,” Weigand said.

Rather than the words themselves, the bishop attributed the overwhelming reaction to the fact that he addressed the congregation in person and that he was sincere.

“If I had simply sent my text there, it might not have been terribly impressive,” he said. But while on the bimah, Weigand became so engulfed with emotion that he couldn’t speak for a few moments. “I was so deeply affected myself.”

Still, Weigand said he will likely bring up the issue at the June meeting of U.S. bishops.

Others were impressed with the bishop, but they, too, stopped short of saying the remarks represented any shift in official church position.

Arnold Ebner, a 74-year-old survivor of Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and Mauthausen camps, heard the remarks and was touched by the bishop’s personal sincerity.

“But I don’t think it’s the opinion entirely of the Catholic Church,” said the Mosaic Law congregant. “It doesn’t change anything. But if it is sincere, maybe more will follow.”

For others who survived the Holocaust, including Ebner’s wife, it’s nearly impossible to accept anyone’s apology.

After she heard the remarks, Rose Ebner said, she felt temporarily liberated from hatred and personally told Weigand: “As a survivor of Auschwitz, I want to thank you for coming to shul.”

In the days following, she said, “I am back to my old self, hating them.” Even if the pope would apologize, “it doesn’t do any good.” The apologies don’t bring back the dead, said Ebner, who lost her mother at Auschwitz.

Weigand spoke at Shabbat services that marked Israel’s 50th.

The majority of his speech focused on the significance of the state of Israel to Catholics. But near the end, he changed course.

The Jews have been “specially chosen” and are “uniquely beloved” by God, he said. “You are the vessel par excellence of his message of love and mercy to all the human race…How Christians could ever ignore or be oblivious to the indisputable teaching and mandate of Christian Scriptures escapes my comprehension.”

Weigand then described two visits he made to Auschwitz last June during a trip to Poland. “The enormity of the evil of the Shoah truly overwhelmed me; it is utterly incomprehensible,” he said. He then apologized to the Jewish audience.

Regardless of its future significance, Taff won’t forget the speech.

“There are moments in life you will always remember,” he said. “Anyone sitting in that sanctuary will remember when Bishop Weigand spoke…It was hard for him to get the words out. It said to me that he gave tremendous thought about whether to add those words to his sermon.”

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.