Pope chastised for ignoring Holocaust in broad apology

NEW YORK — The broad apology issued by Pope John Paul II on Sunday hasn't been easy for Jewish leaders to digest.

"We're very disappointed that the Vatican did not make a reference to the Holocaust and its silence during the Holocaust period," said Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the main Jewish partner in formal dialogue with the Vatican.

"It's an omission that's hard to comprehend."

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's national interreligious affairs director, called the pope's speech Sunday at St. Peter's Basilica "unprecedented."

However, Rudin said, "we expected more" than a sweeping apology for sins committed by the church throughout the ages.

He echoed the opinions of other Jewish leaders who said they believe the apology was unprecedented but lacked proper acknowledgment of the church's role during the Holocaust.

Saying "we humbly ask forgiveness," the pope, dressed in purple robes for Lent, said "recognizing the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present."

Seven cardinals and bishops stood before the pope and cited some of the key Catholic lapses over the last 2,000 years, including religious intolerance and injustice toward women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn, in addition to Jews.

In regard to the Jews, the pope said, "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."

While the pope continues to hold the respect of many Jewish leaders for his attempts to strengthen ties between the two faiths, this is not the first time he has disappointed the Jewish community for failing to reprove the Roman Catholic Church for its silence while 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

"I was especially pleased there was no defense of actions of previous popes," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, referring to a 1998 Vatican document in which the silence of the Holocaust-era pope was defended. "The unnecessary defense of Pius XII weakened the document a great deal."

The silence of Pius XII was hailed as a rescue effort by the church in the 1998 document, which declared that any words of disapproval from the wartime pope would have only exacerbated the violence against the Jews.

One Jewish organization, however, made a point of not criticizing the pope's apology, choosing instead to focus on what it called the "profound historic turning point in the church and its own perception of its role and responsibilities in the world."

The statement from the American Jewish Congress also said the change in Catholic attitudes should not be obscured "by focusing on points that may not have been specifically identified by the pope during the course of his bold accounting of the church's errors."

The pope's attempts to seek forgiveness for past sins has become a theme of his papacy. A week before the pope's speech, the Vatican issued a document, "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Mistakes of the Past," that lists several major areas where the church had failed, including the Inquisition, forced conversion and the treatment of Jews.

"In certain periods of history, Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in this way the face of the church," the pope said Sunday.

The document and Sunday's speech came a week before the pope's planned visit to Israel. When he arrives Tuesday, it will be the first papal visit to the Holy Land in 36 years. Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964, three years before Israel gained control of the entire city after the Six-Day War.

John Paul II is scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he is slated to give another major speech.

Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, said he hopes the pope will use his visit as an opportunity to address, more specifically, the church's wrongdoing during World War II.

Expectations of a broad apology for the Holocaust were extinguished last week when Vatican officials announced that the Sunday Mass should not be viewed as a "spectacular self-flagellation."

Jewish leaders, however, were still anticipating a more specific apology for the Holocaust.

"Expectations were high because of who he is," Foxman said.

Rudin said he thinks the Jewish community should view Sunday's plea as a building block for future relations with the church. All eyes should be on the effect the speech has on future teachings of the church, he said.

"How will it affect the Catholic liturgy in the days, months and years ahead?" Rudin asked. "How will it affect the average Catholic?"

Greater acknowledgment of the anti-Semitic atmosphere leading up to the Holocaust will lead to greater acceptance of an apology, he said.