Pope delivers Pesach blessing but stays mum on Latin Mass

Long on symbolism and short on substance, Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to New York and Washington, D.C., last week revealed a pontiff serious about strengthening Catholic-Jewish relations.

It was a visit that included substantial outreach to the Jewish community.

In encounters with Jewish leaders in both cities, the pope expressed his goodwill and hopes for continued dialogue while offering greetings for the Passover holiday.

But just as significant was what he did not mention — his decision last year to revive the Latin Mass, which includes a prayer for Jewish conversion in its Good Friday liturgy.

That decision has drawn fierce criticism from some Jewish organizations, along with warnings that the revival of the prayer could undo much of the progress in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past four decades.

The pope also did not expressly declare the Church opposed to converting Jews, a step that some Jewish leaders have been seeking.

Still, even those who have had harsh words for the Vatican over the issue praised the symbolic value of his attention to the Jewish community.

The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who was among some 50 American Jewish leaders who attended a private meeting with the pontiff in Washington on April 17, said the pope’s blessing for Passover was an implicit acknowledgment of the validity of Judaism.

“He took the time to meet with the Jewish community in addition to the interfaith community, and then separately bless us on Passover, which is an affirmation of a Jewish festival and a Jewish belief and a Jewish ritual,” Foxman said.

In Washington, Benedict delivered a message to Jewish communal leaders in which he reaffirmed Nostra Aetate, the landmark Vatican document that absolved Jews of collective responsibility for the killing of Jesus Christ and set the stage for four decades of interreligious dialogue. Jewish observers saw that reaffirmation as an implicit recognition by the church of the Jewish covenant with God.

A day after his meeting in Washington, Benedict made a historic appearance at the Park East Synagogue in New York — his first visit to an American shul.

“It is with joy that I come here, just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesah, to express my respect and esteem for the Jewish community in New York City,” Benedict said during the synagogue visit.

Jewish leaders responded with gifts for the pontiff — in Washington, a menorah presented by B’nai Brith International director of intercommunal affairs David Michaels, and in New York, a silver seder plate presented by Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue.

The Washington meeting was held following a larger interfaith gathering that included some 200 representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jain faiths.

Jewish leaders have been divided on the question of the Latin Mass since the issue first arose last summer.

Some have called for the pope to issue an unequivocal rejection of missionizing to the Jews, while others have argued that Jews cannot tell Catholics how they ought to pray.

“I have a strong opinion that we have no business even bringing it up with them,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, who greeted the pope at the White House on April 16. “It’s their business, as long as they’re not calling for hate and enmity.”

Nonetheless, the Vatican has taken steps to alleviate Jewish concerns.

The prayer was revised to remove the most offensive elements, including a reference to Jewish “blindness” in rejecting Christianity. Church officials then issued a series of statements intended to reassure Jews that the Vatican was not retreating from Nostra Aetate but rather was expressing an “eschatological” hope, not an actual imperative.

For example, a statement issued earlier this month through the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, declared that the revival of the Latin Mass was in “no way” intended to “indicate a change in the Catholic Church’s regard for the Jews which has evolved from the basis of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Declaration Nostra Aetate.”

Still, some Jewish leaders remain unsatisfied and had hoped that Benedict would finally put the matter to rest. That possibility now seems extremely unlikely, given Benedict’s multiple opportunities to address Jewish concerns during his visit.

But while no one is suggesting that Catholic-Jewish relations have been derailed, some still expect that the Vatican eventually will have to make explicit its position on Jewish conversion.

“I’m disappointed that he didn’t take the opportunity to clarify the Good Friday Mass,” said Seymour Reich, the treasurer of the International Jewish Commission on Interreligious Consultation who stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity.

“That has to be corrected at some point because the German, Italian and Austrian Jewish communities have indicated their displeasure and intent to boycott this pope,” Reich said. “I hope he takes our concerns seriously and rectifies the issue for us.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.