On April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. On May 28, 2006, he made a pilgrimage to Birkenau, the mass killing center of the death camp Auschwitz, in which approximately 1.5 million Jewish people along with men, women, and children of other nationalities were murdered. To commemorate the victims of those many nationalities the monument memorializes each in its own language. Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, paused in front of the Hebrew inscription to the Jews murdered in Birkenau. He spoke these words:
“There is one (inscription) in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: ‘We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter’ were fulfilled in a terrifying way … Those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die … By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith. ...”
This is an astonishing statement. For in this statement Pope Benedict XVI declared that the genocide of the Jewish people was unique among genocides. It was a deicide. It was an attempt by the German Nazis to murder not just the Jewish people, but God himself.
As Benedict said, “Those vicious criminals … wanted to kill God who called Abraham,” the father of the Jewish people, and God “who spoke on Sinai” to the Jewish people. He affirmed that God dwells in Israel’s midst, as it is written in Scripture, “And they shall know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might dwell in their midst (Ex 29:46).” To annihilate Israel is to murder God who is in their midst and abides with them.
Following the destruction of European Jewry the church starting at the Second Vatican Council sought reconciliation with the Jewish people by acknowledging past oppression, and by affirming Israel’s ongoing covenant with God. The church called for the development of better relations with the Jewish people, based on mutual understanding and respect. Future popes developed this relationship.
Pope Paul VI provided institutional life and permanency to Nostra Aetate. It was then left to John Paul II, a son of the Polish people, and then to Benedict XVI, a son of the German people, to develop and enrich this relationship beyond words and institutional commitment. Only a few decades earlier what they achieved would have been considered unimaginable by both Catholics and Jews. The Jewish community enthusiastically welcomed these developments.
As theologian to John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger played a vital role in the crafting of the famous letter deposited by John Paul II in the Western Wall in Jerusalem at the site of the Second Temple, in the capitol of the sovereign State of the Jewish people in March 2000.
“God of our fathers, / You chose Abraham and his descendants / to bring your Name to the Nations: / we are deeply saddened / by the behaviour of those / who in the course of history / have caused these children of yours to suffer, / and asking your forgiveness / we wish to commit ourselves to / genuine brotherhood / with the people of the Covenant.”
In this letter Pope John Paul II affirmed the Jewish people’s ongoing covenant with God. Pope Benedict XVI deepened this relationship. By declaring in Auschwitz, the very place where Israel was murdered, that to murder the Jewish people is to murder God, the pope affirmed that, even after the advent of Christ, God is in our midst, and that Israel has a unique witness to the revelation of the One God. This is a deeply affectionate and respectful appreciation of the Jewish people. It is received by the Jewish people with the conviction and the theological depth with which it was presented by Pope Benedict XVI. For this alone shall we ever remember him.
In March of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI published the second of his three-volume magnum opus, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Based on meticulous scholarship of the Gospels, Benedict XVI laid out the most comprehensive, compelling exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ ever provided by the Catholic Church, indeed, any church. As several Jewish observers noted, since the faithful tend to read Scripture and commentary more than church documents, the pope’s book may possibly make a more lasting mark than Nostra Aetate itself. When he visited Israel in May 2009, the pope declared that the Holy See and the State of Israel have many shared values. On his visit to Jerusalem, he impressed the rabbinic leadership and many others with the sincerity of his desire for good relations.
As I write these lines the cardinals have begun to gather in Rome to elect a new pope. Among them is our own dear friend, His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, who in his very person and life of faith lives these ideals here in Chicago. Many of us who are involved in Jewish-Catholic relations are confident that the trajectory of the Catholic-Jewish relationship, which was developed and deepened by Pope Benedict XVI, will continue to grow and to flourish under the leadership of his successor.
Poupko is the Judaic scholar for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago/Jewish United Fund.