Last Friday, Pope Benedict XVI stopped at the Park Street Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The 81-year-old pontiff — a native of Germany whose father had been anti-Nazi — was forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth, and conscripted into the German army during the final months of World War II, before deserting in the war’s concluding days. With fitting poignancy, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the Holocaust survivor who leads the synagogue, greeted Pope Benedict. Schneier, 78, lost his family in the Nazis’ Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps as a teenager. Schneier has headed the synagogue since 1962, while championing religious freedom and tolerance worldwide.
Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, characterized the pope’s appearance — one day before Passover — thusly: “By this personal and informal visit, which is not part of his official program, His Holiness wishes to express his good will toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover.”
Indeed this is the pope’s second visit to a synagogue as pontiff. On his initial papal trip abroad, in August 2005, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, that had been destroyed by the Nazis. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, noted appositely, on that occasion, “The fact that in his very first foreign visit as Pope he went to the Cologne Synagogue is an indication of the importance that the Church attaches to its relationship with the Jews.” Within a year later, Benedict’s May 2006 address while visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp included a blistering rebuke and condemnation of those who would persecute Jews, and a lucid presentation of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, particularly as it was manifested in the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz:
Deep down, 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.
Earlier, writing in December 2000, the future pope (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) affirmed his close alignment with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the ecumenical thought of his predecessor and dear friend, Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger’s statement reiterates this “new vision of Jewish-Christian relations,” and even acknowledges a role for Christian anti-Semitism in the Holocaust itself:
Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.
He then implores that a new relationship be forged between the Church and Israel out of the tragic ashes of the Holocaust, based upon overcoming “every kind of anti-Judaism,” and engaging in sincere, meaningful dialogue.
In contrast to the pope, consider Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. For more than a thousand years, since its founding in 792 A.D., Al-Azhar, has served as the academic shrine — much as Mecca is the religious shrine — of the global Sunni Muslim community (Sunnis are about 90 percent of Muslims).