Pope Francis to visit Auschwitz


Pope Francis will visit Auschwitz during a trip to Poland, the Vatican announced.

The pope is scheduled to visit the Nazi death camp on July 29 as part of a five-day trip. He will deliver an address at the site.

His immediate two predecessors – Benedict and John Paul II – also visited Auschwitz during their tenures.

On July 31, the last day of his visit to Poland, the pope will celebrate the closing Mass of World Youth Day at the Campus Misericordiae. Later that afternoon he will deliver an address to World Youth Day volunteers.

One million European Jews and more than 100,000 others died at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945.

North Korea fires three short-range rockets as Pope visits South Korea


North Korea fired three short-range rockets off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea's Ministry of Defense said, shortly before Pope Francis arrived in Seoul on his first visit to Asia.

The rockets were fired from multiple launchers in the North Korean port city of Wonsan and traveled 135 miles before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula, a defense ministry official said.

The last rocket was fired 35 minutes before Pope Francis was due to arrive at an air base in Seoul, where the pontiff started a five-day visit to South Korea.

The launches came ahead of U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday. Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive in nature but North Korea regularly protests against the drills, which it sees as a rehearsal for war.

North Korea last fired short-range rockets in late July but has since said repeatedly that the launches are specifically designed as counter measures against those drills.

“Given that the U.S. and the puppet forces of South Korea continue staging nuclear war exercises against us in particular, we will take countermeasures for self-defense which will include missile launches, nuclear tests and all other programs,” a statement carried by North Korean state media last Friday said.

Pyongyang is under heavy U.N. and U.S. sanctions related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Short-range rockets do not defy the ban but Pyongyang has in recent months changed its propaganda style to include photographs of leader Kim Jong Un personally supervising the launches.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said the United States was assessing whether the rocket firings were in violation of sanctions.

Marie Harf said Washington had yet to determine what type of missiles had been fired, but said North Korea failed to follow international procedures by giving prior notification to ships and aircraft.

“We continue to call upon North Korea to refrain from taking such provocative actions,” she told a regular news briefing.

Reporting by Kahyun Yang and James Pearson in Seoul; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Tom Brown

Pope, in Syria peace appeal, calls for end to spiral of death


A somber-looking Pope Francis made an impassioned appeal before 100,000 people on Saturday to avert a widening of Syria's conflict, urging world leaders to pull humanity out of a “spiral of sorrow and death.”

Francis, who two days ago branded a military solution in Syria “a futile pursuit”, led the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world.

“Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!” Francis said at the midpoint of a five-hour prayer service. Police and the Vatican estimated a crowd of about 100,000 in St Peter's Square.

The United States and France are considering military action against Damascus to punish President Bashar Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria's civil war that killed hundreds of people. Assad's government denies responsibility.

A number of people held up Syrian flags and placards reading “Hands off Syria,” and “Obama, you don't have a dream, you have a nightmare”. But they were not allowed into St Peter's Square, in keeping with the pope's intention for a religious service.

The service was punctuated by music, prayer, the reciting of the rosary and long periods of silence in which the participants were asked to meditate on the need for peace to vanquish the destruction of war.

“We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death!” said Francis, who wore his simple white cassock instead of ceremonial robes to the service.

“At this point I ask myself: Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”

He then asked “each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it!”

When he announced the prayer vigil last Sunday, Francis asked Catholics around the world to pray and fast and invited members of other religious to take part in any way they saw fit in the hope that a wider war could be averted.

“That's very scary, very scary,” said Lennie Tallud, a clinical lab scientist visiting St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Asked whether she thought prayers would make a difference, she said: “Definitely, for sure. No doubt. I think it would – 100 percent.”

Services were held by Christians around the world, including in Jerusalem, Assisi and Milan in Italy, in Boston and Baghdad.

 

MUSLIMS PRAY WITH POPE

Yaha Pallavicini, a leader of Italy's Muslim community, attended the prayer service with other Muslims.

“Praying for the intention of peace is something that can only help fraternity and, God willing, avoid more war,” he told Reuters. “As Muslims who want peace we have to work so that the values of faith and dialogue prevail over the destruction of peoples.”

In his address, the pope, who for most of the service sat silently behind an altar on the steps of the largest church in Christendom, stressed the power of prayer to change the world.

“This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!” he said.

“Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation,” he said.

His words struck a personal chord with Marina Verkotenh, a pilgrim from Russia. “I think it's very important for all the people to unite here at this square and to bring together all our forces to unite and to pray, and also to bring attention to all the people who decide this question, these important questions about war and peace,” she said.

At least one senior U.S. clergyman publicly expressed reservations about President Barack Obama's campaign for military action against Syria.

“As Congress debates a resolution authorising military force in Syria, I urge you instead to support U.S. leadership for peace. Only dialogue can save lives and bring about peace in Syria,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a message sent to U.S. senators from Florida and to his representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Additional reporting by Noreen O'Donnell in New York, editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pope at installation gives shout-out to Jews


Pope Francis gave a shout-out to Jews during the open-air Mass that formally installed him as pontiff.

Francis began his homily Tuesday by greeting the Catholic dignitaries and faithful in the huge crowd that crammed St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area. He thanked “representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.”

Among the crowd were Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Rome Jewish community; and more than a dozen other Jewish representatives.

It is said to be the first time that Rome’s chief rabbi has attended a papal inauguration.

Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had invited Di Segni to his inauguration on April 24, 2005, but Di Segni did not attend because it was the first day of Passover.

Benedict also singled out Jews in his welcoming remarks, greeting “with great affection …  you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.”

New pope is an old friend of the Jewish community


Before immigrating to the United States from Argentina, I was invited several times on national public holidays to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires for Catholic Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. As a gesture of inclusiveness, the group of approximately 25 clergy from various faiths was invited to sit close to the altar.

In listening to the cardinal's sermons, I appreciated the many times when he spoke out against injustice, corruption, social inequality, human trafficking and his commitment to building a better society. As a rabbi who is very involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I followed his words with great interest.

Argentinians hold varying opinions about the new pope regarding some controversial issues, but many would agree that during his tenure as head of the Argentina Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio always promoted interfaith dialogue. He enjoys a good relationship with the Jewish community in Argentina and has been the guest of several synagogues, as well as other Jewish organizations.

The election of a new pope is an important event for the Roman Catholic Church. As the largest Christian denomination in the world with an estimated 1.2 billion members, it is relevant for others, too — particularly for the Jewish people.

After the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, the Catholic and Protestant churches realized that something was wrong with their teachings about Jews and Judaism because the Holocaust did not happen in Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu countries; it happened in Christian countries. Consequently, the churches began to re-evaluate their historically negative position toward Jews and Judaism.

In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated the historic Declaration On The Relations of the Church To Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate. The document laid the foundation on which important declarations, documents and actions were built.

But with the election of a new pope, the question arises in many minds: Will Pope Francis follow in the steps of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? I am hopeful he will.

In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio visited the AMIA, an organization in Buenos Aires dedicated to fostering the well-being and development of Jewish life, helping the poor and unemployed, and supporting Jewish education. The AMIA experienced a devastating terrorist attack in 1994 in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

During his visit, the cardinal said a prayer in the courtyard in front of a memorial with the names of the 85 fatalities, then placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial. Invited to sign the book of illustrious guests, he wrote — paraphrasing God's words to Abraham after the test of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:17) — “As the sands on the seashore will be your descendants, I thank the Lord that on this day I am allowed to share part of the way with our older brothers.”

Bergoglio also said that AMIA is “an example to imitate of work for the common good, a house of solidarity, and a place that evokes in us a history of blood and pain, another link of pain that God's chosen people has been to throughout history.”

The cardinal is well known as a humble man who uses public transportation in the city and cooks his own meals. He displayed his modest nature at the end of the visit to the AMIA, when the center's secretary offered to accompany him to his car. When Cardinal Bergoglio replied that he did not have a car, he was told that a cab would be called for him. The cardinal's response was,”No thanks, I will take the subway.”

For several years, B'nai B'rith and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires organized a Jewish-Christian commemoration of Kristallnach, “the Night of Broken Glass” — the Nazis' state-sanctioned riots against the Jewish community of Germany in November 1938. The commemorations took place at various Catholic churches, including twice at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, the last time in November 2012.

The commemoration began with the reading of “From Death to Hope: Liturgical Reflections on the Holocaust,” co-edited by the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a native Argentinian who was director of interfaith affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, and Eugene Fisher, associate director and secretary for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In his speech at the commemoration, the cardinal noted that during World War II, many pretended not to notice what was happening to the Jews. Not only did individuals ignore people in the extermination camps, he said, but entire countries ignored them even though they had the means to help.

As an example, he cited countries that were capable of accessing the extermination camps but did not dare to bomb them. He added, “I apologize for this sin of ignoring our own flesh, which is that of our brothers.”

Pope Francis is particularly close to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary (the rabbinical seminary of the Conservative movement) and senior rabbi of the Benei Tikva synagogue in Buenos Aires. Together they published a book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which chronicles hundreds of hours of their conversations about God, fundamentalism, death, women, abortion, education, globalization, the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other topics.

The book, as well as others written by Bergoglio, will likely become best-sellers now. And as a bonus, those who read “On Heaven and Earth” will be introduced to Jewish perspectives and thus will have the opportunity to learn about Judaism.

In the book's introduction, Bergoglio offered his point of view regarding interfaith relationships.

“Dialogue is born of an attitude of respect for another person, and a conviction that the other has something good to say; it assumes to make room in our hearts for his point of view, for his opinions and his suggestions,” he wrote. “Dialogue involves a warm welcome, not condemnation. To dialogue, one must lower defenses, open doors and provide human warmth.”

Bergoglio described his friendship with the rabbi and their joint preparation of the book, saying, “With Skorka I didn't ever have to compromise my Catholic identity, just as he did not with his Jewish identity. This was not only because of the respect we have for each other, but also because this is what we consider interreligious dialogue.”

He added, “I consider Skorka a brother and a friend.”

The two clergy also host a television program for a local Catholic channel in which they discuss topics from the perspectives of each religion. Recently, Argentina Catholic University in Buenos Aires awarded Rabbi Skorka an honorary doctorate, and the cardinal presented it to him.

Those of us who know Pope Francis are confident that in his new position, he will continue in the steps of his two predecessors, and the dialogue and friendship between Catholics and Jews will continue.

Mordechai Levin is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Neb.

Jews find early signs from Pope Francis encouraging


When the white smoke rose last week at the Vatican, signaling to the world that the College of Cardinals had chosen a new pope, Catholics weren’t the only ones waiting with bated breath.

Jews, too, were eager to see whether the new pontiff would be someone familiar with their concerns.

Would he be a non-European unfamiliar with the Jewish people and the weighty legacy of the Holocaust? Would he carry on the legacy of his immediate predecessors and work to further Jewish-Catholic relations? 

After the new pope appeared before the masses in St. Peter’s Square, it didn’t take long for him to signal that he would maintain the church’s outreach to Jews. Nor did it take long for the Jews to sing his praises.

As it turns out, Pope Francis, 76 – nee Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina – was from outside Europe and had a long history of interfaith outreach and good relations with the Jews. He’s the first pope from the Americas, as well as the first in more than a millennium from outside Europe.

The new pontiff “is no stranger to us,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who met with Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 2008, said in a statement. “He always had an open ear for our concerns.

“By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world,” Lauder said. “I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Like Benedict before him, Francis in one of his first official acts wrote to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. He invited Di Segni to the papal inaugural Mass and said he hoped “to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced” since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The election of Francis, Di Segni wrote back, “gives us the hope that the path of friendship, respect and productive collaboration will continue.”

On Saturday, the pope went out of his way to acknowledge non-Catholics in a blessing offered to news media.

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,” Francis said in his address, according to The New York Times. “May God bless you.”

Pope John Paul II had made outreach to Jews one of the pillars of his papacy. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued dialogue with the Jews but also made several policy decisions that angered Jews, including lifting the excommunication of a renegade bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Francis projects a “man of the people” style in sharp contrast to Benedict, who was seen as removed and cold. Francis is known for living simply, taking the subway and answering his own phone. He spent virtually his entire career in Argentina, away from the intrigues of the Vatican’s Roman Curia — the central governing body of the Catholic Church — and other scandals that dogged the papacy of his predecessor.

However, within days of the new pope's election, the Vatican faced questions about what Francis did — and did not do — to oppose the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Critics have said the church did not do enough to oppose the military dictatorship's Dirty War, including the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests in 1976. Francis has said he worked behind the scenes to free the priests and sheltered others by hiding them at a Jesuit school.

The questions about Francis' past carry echoes of the Holocaust-era controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII. Many Jews charge that Pius did not do enough to oppose the Nazis, but the Vatican and Pius' proponents say he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.

While a staunch conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, female priests and abortion, Francis spent years working among the poor and made interfaith outreach one of his priorities.

“The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Monsignor Jorge Bergoglio for many years,” said Claudio Epelman, executive director of the congress. “We know his virtues and have no doubt whatsoever that he will do an excellent job for the church.”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, his relationship with Argentinian Jews was personal as well as institutional.

His only book, “Regarding Heaven and Earth,” is the transcript of wide-ranging conversations between himself and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. Francis and the rabbi also shared billing on an Argentinian TV talk show on religious issues.

Francis has referred to Skorka as his “brother and friend.” The then-cardinal attended services at Skorka’s synagogue and also arranged for Skorka to receive an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Argentina.

Francis also wrote the foreword to a book by another Buenos Aires rabbi and civic activist, Sergio Bergman.

“Bergoglio is a master,” Bergman wrote in the Argentinian media after Francis’ election. “True to my Jewish roots and rabbinical vocation, inside my home community and the entire Argentine society, I found in Francis a teacher who heard me, guided me and advised me on how to deploy my vocation to serve both the Creator and his creatures in defiance of common good.”

Last December, Bergoglio joined Bergman and other Jewish leaders and representatives of other faiths in lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Francis is cited with particular warmth by Argentinian Jews for showing solidarity with the Jewish community following the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead. The attack, Francis told the Argentinian media, was “another link in the chain of pain and persecution that God’s chosen people has suffered throughout history.”

In 2005, he signed a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case and a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures.” In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.

“The closeness between Francis and the Jewish community is special and precious,” Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, told JTA.

Bretton-Granatoor, who is based in New York but has met Francis a couple of times, called the new pope “a mensch” who “gets the importance of a relationship with the Jewish community, who understands the meaning of the Shoah and has a heart in the right place on a number of issues that concern us as well.”

Obviously, he added, “we will vigorously disagree with him on many fundamental issues as well — but that is part of the game, isn't it?”

Papal decision made at Vatican [VIDEO/SLIDESHOW]


White smoke poured from the roof of the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica pealed, signaling that cardinals had chosen a new pope to lead the troubled Roman Catholic Church after only five ballots.

The decision by 115 cardinal electors came sooner than many faithful expected because of the large number of possible frontrunners identified before the vote to replace Pope Benedict, who resigned in February.

The name of the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics was expected to be announced in around half an hour from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.

The secret conclave began on Tuesday night with a first ballot in the Renaissance splendor of the chapel and four ballots were held on Wednesday. The white smoke indicated the new pontiff had obtained the required two thirds majority in the fifth ballot.

Following a split ballot when they were first shut away amid the chapel's Renaissance splendor on Tuesday evening, the cardinal electors held a first full day of deliberations on Wednesday. Black smoke rose after the morning session to signal no decision.

Cheers arose from hundreds of people sheltering from incessant rain under a sea of umbrellas in St. Peter's Square as the white smoke billowed from the narrow chimney.

The cardinals had faced a tough task in finding a leader capable of overcoming crises caused by priestly child abuse and a leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the Church government or Curia.

The wave of problems are thought to have contributed to Pope Benedict's decision to become the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.

The last four popes were all elected within two or three days.

Seven ballots have been required on average over the last nine conclaves. Benedict was clear frontrunner in 2005 and elected after only four ballots.

The cardinals were shut inside for the secret election under Michelangelo's luminous frescos on Tuesday after a day of religious pomp and prayer to prepare for the task.

The initial inconclusive vote about two hours later was seen as a way of filtering the choice down to frontrunners for discussions among the supporters of the various candidates.

No hint emerged before the pope was chosen. The Vatican had taken precautions, including electronic jamming devices, to prevent any leaks from inside the conclave.

Faithful cheer as white smoke rises from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, indicating a new pope has been elected at the Vatican, on March 13. Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

The new pope will take up a burden that Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.

Apart from an child abuse scandals and the “Vatileaks” case, the Church has been shaken by rivalry from other churches, the advance of secularism, especially in its European heartland, and problems in the running the Vatican bank.

The former head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is attending the conclave despite calls for him to stay away because of a sex abuse case that led to his censure by his successor Archbishop Jose Gomez in January. He was stripped of all public and administrative duties as punishment.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the victims in four sex abuse cases said the diocese, Mahony and an ex-priest had agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle. Mahony was accused of helping a confessed pedophile priest escape prosecution.

CARDINAL FRONTRUNNERS

Frontrunners at the conclave included Brazilian Odilo Scherer – who would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III, nearly 1,300 years ago – and Italy's Angelo Scola, who would return the papacy to traditional Italian hands after 35 years of the German Benedict XVI and Polish John Paul II.

In preparatory meetings before the conclave, the cardinals seemed divided between those who believe the new pontiff must be a strong manager to get the dysfunctional bureaucracy under control and others who are looking more for a proven pastoral figure to revitalize their faith across the globe.

Milan Archbishop Scola, who has managed two big Italian dioceses without being part of the Vatican's central administration, could be well-placed to understand the Curia's Byzantine politics and introduce swift reform.

Scherer is said to be the Curia's favored candidate and would satisfy those who want a non-European, reflecting the future of a Church shifting towards the developing world.

A host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned as potential popes – including U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri.

All the prelates meeting in the Sistine Chapel were appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, and the next pontiff will almost certainly pursue their fierce defense of traditional moral teachings.

Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary, Catherine Hornby, Crispian Balmer and Tom Heneghan and Georgina Prodhan in Vienna; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Keith Weir and Alastair Macdonald

Argentinian Pope Bergoglio a moderate focused on the poor


The first Latin American pope, Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio is a moderate known for his strong negotiating skills as well as a readiness to challenge powerful interests.

He is a modest man from a middle class family who is content to travel by bus.

Described by his biographer as a balancing force, Bergoglio, 76, has monk-like habits, is media shy and deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.

“His character is in every way that of a moderate. He is absolutely capable of undertaking the necessary renovation without any leaps into the unknown. He would be a balancing force,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.

“He shares the view that the Church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active…. a church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it,” she added.

“His lifestyle is sober and austere. That's the way he lives. He travels on the underground, the bus, when he goes to Rome he flies economy class.”

The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a middle-class family of seven, his father a railway worker and his mother a housewife.

He is a solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions. Since rejecting a comfortable archbishop's residence, he has lived in a small apartment outside Buenos Aires where he spends his weekends in solitude.

In his rare public appearances, Bergoglio spares no harsh words for politicians and Argentine society, and has had a tricky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

TURBULENT TIMES

Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post from 1973 to 1979.

Bergoglio's vocational success coincided with the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship, during which up to 30,000 suspected leftists were kidnapped and killed — which prompted sharp questions about his role.

The most well-known episode relates to the abduction of two Jesuits whom the military government secretly jailed for their work in poor neighbourhoods.

According to “The Silence,” a book written by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Bergoglio withdrew his order's protection of the two men after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture.

Verbitsky's book is based on statements by Orlando Yorio, one of the kidnapped Jesuits, before he died of natural causes in 2000. Both of the abducted clergymen survived five months of imprisonment.

“History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cosy with the military,” Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.

Those who defend Bergoglio say there is no proof behind these claims and, on the contrary, they say the priest helped many dissidents escape during the military junta's rule.

But in the Vatican, far removed from the dictatorship's grim legacy, this quiet priest is expected to lead the Church with an iron grip and a strong social conscience.

In 2010, he challenged the Argentine government when it backed a gay marriage bill.

“Let's not be naive. This isn't a simple political fight, it's an attempt to destroy God's plan,” he wrote in a letter days before the bill was approved by Congress.

Additional reporting by Damina Wrocklavsy; Editing by Helen Popper and Giles Elgood

Jewish leaders, groups welcome Pope Francis


Jewish leaders around the world welcomed Wednesday’s selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis upon his selection, has been the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998 and is the first from the Americas to lead the Catholic Church.

“In the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, the widely shared impression is that he’s very friendly, that the cardinal was determined to have a cordial relationship with the Jewish community,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said.

Bergoglio has twice attended services at synagogues in Buenos Aires, Hier said, and he led a commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht in his cathedral this past December.

Hier and other Jewish leaders were particularly encouraged by Bergoglio’s reaction to the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed more than 80 people.

“We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires,” Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who is the senior rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in Buenos Aires and has been a member of Buenos Aires’ city legislature since 2011, heralded Bergoglio’s selection on Twitter.

“Argentines and men and women of good will, as brothers, we celebrate the unity in diversity convened together for Francisco I,” Bergman tweeted in Spanish after hearing news of the selection.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, who met Bergoglio in 2008, expressed optimism that Francis would continue the work of building relationships between the Catholic Church and world Jewry.

“He always had an open ear for our concerns,” Lauder said in a statement. “I am sure that Francis I will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”

Bergoglio’s reputation in Argentina is not that of a reformer. He is known to be socially conservative, upholding the church’s traditionally held positions on gay rights and abortion. He has not said much publicly about Israel in the past, but Hier said he is hopeful that Francis will emerge as a supporter of the Jewish state.

“We very much see him as a pope in the tradition of John Paul II and John XXIII,” Hier said. John Paul II established formal relations between the Vatican and Israel; John XXIII is believed to have influenced the drafting of “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 declaration that stated Jews could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

World Jewish Congress head praises Pope Francis


World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder congratulated Cardinal Jorge María Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, on his election as Pope Francis I on Wednesday.

“Pope Francis I is no stranger to us. In recent years he attended many inter-faith events co-organized by the WJC and our regional affiliate, the Latin American Jewish Congress,” he wrote, adding he had met him in Buenos Aires in 2008.

Lauder praised the new pope as “an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness…a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths”.

“We look forward to continuing the close relationship that has been fostered between the Catholic Church and the Jews over the past two decades.”

After praising the work of Popes John Paul and Benedict for Catholic-Jewish relations, Lauder said:

“We are convinced that new pontiff will continue on this path, that he will speak out against all forms of anti-Semitism both within and without the Catholic Church, that he will take action against clerics who deny or belittle the Holocaust, and that he will strengthen the Vatican's relationship with Israel.”

Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Benedict’s papacy: a period of close Jewish relations with occasional bumps


Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year reign as head of the world’s 1 billion Catholics sometimes was a bumpy one for the Vatican’s relations with Israel and the wider Jewish community. But it was also a period in which relations where consolidated and fervent pledges made to continue interfaith dialogue and bilateral cooperation.

Both elements were evident in the tributes that flowed from Jewish leaders following the surprise announcement Monday that due to his advanced age and weakening health, Benedict would step down on Feb. 28.

“There were bumps in the road during this papacy,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. “But he listened to our concerns and tried to address them, which shows how close our two communities have become in the last half century and how much more work we need to do together to help repair a broken world.”

The German-born Benedict, 85, is the first pope to resign since the 15th century. He announced his decision at a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican.

[Related: Pope Benedict XVI to resign, citing frailty]

“In today’s world,” he declared in Latin, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

The pope’s brother told the German news agency DPA that Benedict had been weighing the decision for months. Still, his resignation came as a shock.

“There were moments of divergence, inevitable because of the essential and irreconcilable differences between the two worlds,” said Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. “But there was always a positive will to compare and construct.”

Under Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican “has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. “Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been, and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation.”

Less than two weeks earlier, in fact, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had said that after years of fitful negotiations, Israel and the Vatican were “on the verge” of resolving outstanding bilateral issues and finalizing the Fundamental Agreement governing relations between the two states.

Benedict was elected pontiff in April 2005 following the death of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been a close friend and adviser to the charismatic John Paul II, who had made fostering better relations with the Jews a cornerstone of his nearly 27-year papacy.

“For Jews and Israel, Benedict’s papacy has meant a consolidation and confirmation of the developments and achievements during John Paul II’s papacy,” Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, told JTA.

Benedict’s own personal history also helped shape this commitment. Born in Bavaria, he grew up in an anti-Nazi Catholic family but, like all teenagers, was obligated to join the Hitler Youth organization and was conscripted into the German army. Eventually he deserted.

As pope, Benedict met frequently with Jewish groups and visited synagogues in several countries. His first trip abroad as the pontiff was to his native Germany, where he made it a point to visit the synagogue in Cologne and issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism and “the insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The visit marked only the second time a pope had visited a synagogue. Benedict later visited synagogues in Rome and New York.

He also confronted his troubled past in Poland in 2006 when he visited Auschwitz and, declaring himself “a son of Germany,” prayed for victims of the Holocaust, as well as on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009 when he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and met with Holocaust survivors.

As a young theologian in the 1960s, Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council, which aimed to liberalize the Church. In 1965, the council promulgated the Nostra Aetate declaration that opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Benedict repeatedly reaffirmed commitment to Nostra Aetate’s teachings. Still, several issues that emerged during his tenure called that commitment into question, casting a shadow over Catholic-Jewish relations.

These included the revival of a pre-Vatican II Good Friday Latin prayer that called for the conversion of Jews, moving the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood and reaching out to a breakaway ultratraditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, in an effort to bring it back into the mainstream Catholic fold. In doing so, Benedict revoked the excommunication of three of the movement's bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Vatican officials said a conclave of cardinals will be convened in March to elect a new pope. But there is no clear indication as to who might be picked, or from what country or continent he might come. Vatican observers said that since all the cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope had been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict, whoever is elected would probably follow similar overall policies.

Like John Paul II, Benedict is a doctrinal conservative, staunchly opposed to female priests, gay marriage, abortion, birth control and divorce.

“History will view Benedict as the last of the traditional European pontiffs, the last pope who personally experienced World War II and the Holocaust, and one of the last Catholic leaders to have participated in the historic Second Vatican Council,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, who first met Ratzinger in the 1970s.

The next pope will have to deal with fallout from scandals that tainted Benedict’s reign, from continuing accusations of sex abuse by priests to a security breach that saw Benedict’s butler leaking the pope’s private papers to a reporter. It remains to be seen, however, whether fostering Jewish-Catholic relations will receive less attention under a younger and possibly non-European pope without the historic memory of the Holocaust and Vatican II.

“Doctrinally this will never happen, but in terms of visibility and engagement that may happen if he is from a place where there is no significant Jewish community present today or in the very recent past,” Rosen said.

Rosen added, however, a non-European pope might be less encumbered by the burdens of the past.

“Past tragedy and past failure are not the best basis for a long-term future relationship,” Rosen said. “This has to be based upon nurturing the sense of common patrimony, roots. Some African cardinals are better in this regard than many European ones.”

Shimon Peres tweets the pope


Israel's President Shimon Peres welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to Twitter with a tweet extolling Israel-Vatican ties.

“Your holiness, welcome to Twitter. Our relations with the Vatican are at their best and can form a basis to further peace everywhere,” Peres tweeted Tuesday.

Peres' tweet to the pope came a day after the Vatican announced the pontiff's Twitter handle (@Pontifex). The pope gained some 370,000 followers within the first 24 hours.

Peres met Tuesday with the new Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto at a formal ceremony at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, along with four other new ambassadors to Israel. 

“I have the highest regard for His Holiness and I was glad to see that he started to tweet,” Peres said during the ceremony. “Today we have the best relationship between Israel and the Holy See in the last 2,000 years. That is the main story and I hope those relations will continue to improve. We feel that the relationship now is deeper and wider than ever before, a relationship that looks to the future.”

Pope iPad

This isn't Pope Benedict XVI's first venture into the tech world; He is used an iPad at the Vatican on June 28, 2011. Photo by Osservatore Romano/Reuters

State Dept. asks the pope to intervene in Alan Gross case


The U.S. State Department asked Pope Benedict XVI to push for the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban jail during his visit to the island nation.

The request for the pope to discuss the Gross case with Cuban officials while he was in Cuba this week went directly to the Vatican and through the papal nuncio in Washington, according to The Associated Press.

“We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday, the AP reported.

Gross, 62, is an American aid worker serving 15 years in prison for what the Cuban government deems “crimes against the state.” He was distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet during his time in Cuba; he was arrested in December 2009.

The Gross family had appealed to the pope for help earlier this month, as reported by JTA.

“Given the significance of the pope’s visit to Cuba and where we are in this process, it would be very helpful if the pope raised Alan’s case in his discussions with the Cuban government,” Peter Kahn, Gross’ American lawyer, told JTA on March 7.

Sacks tells pope Jewish-Christian relations in Britain good


Following an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Britain’s chief rabbi described relations between Christians and Jews in his country “as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world.”

In an interview with Vatican Radio following his meeting with the pope on Monday, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said Benedict had raised the issue of the current state of Christian-Jewish relations.

The pope “continually wanted to know how was that state of relationship in Britain, where in fact of course it’s as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world,” Sacks said.

He said the pope also wanted “to reaffirm his belief in our shared belief in the god of Abraham, our shared commitment to the Ten Commandments and our shared belief that society must have a spiritual dimension.”

He said he and the pope were both “very concerned obviously with the soul of Europe, I mean Europe was built on Judeo-Christian foundations.”

Pope meets Israeli religious leaders


Pope Benedict XVI urged dialogue among faiths and condemned violence in the name of God in a meeting with Israeli religious leaders.

In a meeting Thursday at the Vatican with members of the Israeli Religious Council, the pope affirmed that religion must be a force for peace.

“Today we find ourselves confronted by two kinds of violence: on the one hand, the use of violence in the name of religion and, on the other, the violence that is the consequence of the denial of God which often characterises life in modern society,” the pope said. “In this situation, as religious leaders we are called to reaffirm that the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. This is a truth that must become ever more visible in the way in which we live with each other on a daily basis. Hence, I wish to encourage you to foster a climate of trust and dialogue among the leaders and members of all the religious traditions present in the Holy Land.”

Formed in 2007 to raise awareness about the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation in Israel, the council represents 18 different religious communities, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze.

Israel’s chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, called the meeting historic and noted its coincidence with the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

“We, the religious leaders of the Holy Land, have come to prove once and for all that we can live in peace,” Metzger told the pope.

Denounce violence in the name of religion, Vatican liaison says


The Vatican chief liaison to world Jewry voiced an urgent call from Pope Benedict XVI for all religious leaders to openly denounce violence in the name of religion.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, on his first visit to the United States as a Vatican representative, made his remarks Monday during the inaugural luncheon for the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“We know God does not dwell in violence, only in peace,” Koch said.

Koch is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican branch encompassing the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He assumed his position in June 2010.

During an appearance Sunday at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Koch told an audience of rabbis, priests, theologians and specialists in interfaith dialogue that many Jews approve of the likely canonization of Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope who many accuse of not doing enough to defend Jews from the Nazis.

His assertions, including that the opening of the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives would not add more information about Pius’ activities during the Nazi era, were met with anger from some attending the program, the Forward reported.

Israel gifts pope with olive tree


An olive tree more than 200 years old grown near Nazareth was sent as a gift from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Pope Benedict XVI.

The tree will be planted Wednesday during a ceremony at Viale Degli Ulivi, or Olive Tree Boulevard, in the Vatican Gardens.

According to Netanyahu, the tree symbolizes the blooming friendship between Israel and the Vatican, and it represents the aspiration to foster peace and brotherhood between peoples and religions. The gift follows the prime minister’s recent visit to the Vatican Museum.

Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund, selected and shipped the tree to Ravenna Port in Italy. JNF World Chairman Effi Stenzler will attend the ceremony.

Pope called on to condemn bishop’s new anti-Semitic slur


A group of European rabbis has called on the pope to condemn the latest anti-Semitic remarks by a Holocaust-denying Catholic bishop.

The Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis slammed comments by Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson in which he allegedly blamed Jews for deicide. Williamson, a member of the radical Catholic Pius Brotherhood sect, reportedly made the comments in the latest issue of his newsletter, “The Eleison Comments.” He has been living in London.

“Comments like these take us back decades to the dark days before there was a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue between Jews and Roman Catholics,” conference President Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of Moscow said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Goldschmidt called for the Church to “suspend negotiations with extremist Catholic tendencies until it is clear that these groups show a clear commitment to tackling anti-Semitism within their ranks.”

In his newsletter, Williamson wrote that “only the Jews were the primary agents of the deicide because Pontius Pilate would never have condemned Jesus if the Jews had not asked for blood.”

Williamson was found guilty of Holocaust denial in Germany in 2010 and fined about $14,000. He has previously denied the existence of gas chambers and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication against Williamson, but the Vatican also reportedly declared that “in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the Church, (he) will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted.”

During meetings with Pope Benedict in Berlin last month, German Jewish leader Dieter Graumann said that one of the issues that troubled Jewish-Catholic relations was the Church’s refusal to condemn Williamson.

In his statement Wednesday, Goldschmidt said the pope “has shown a commitment to fostering a spirit of positive dialogue with Jews both before and during his papacy. But he must clearly show that there is no room in the Catholic Church for purveyors of hate.”

Susan Sarandon knocked for calling pope a Nazi


Susan Sarandon is under fire after referring to the German-born Pope Benedict XVI as a Nazi.

The actress made the comment during an interview Saturday with actor Bob Balaban at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Sarandon was discussing her 1995 Oscar-winning film “Dead Man Walking,” based on an anti-death penalty book by Sister Helen Prejean, when she mentioned that she had sent a copy of the book to the pope.

“The last one,” she clarified, referring to Pope John Paul II. “Not this Nazi one we have now,” meaning Pope Benedict. Sarandon then repeated the remark.

The Anti-Defamation League condemned Sarandon for her word choice and suggested she apologize to the Catholic community.

“Ms. Sarandon may have her differences with the Catholic Church, but that is no excuse for throwing around Nazi analogies,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said Monday in a statement. “Such words are hateful, vindictive and only serve to diminish the true history and meaning of the Holocaust.”

Pope Benedict was born in Germany in 1927 and has spoken of being forced to join the Hitler Youth by his seminary. He also was later conscripted into the German army at age 16.

Pope’s German trip important, spokesman says


Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to his native Germany afforded the opportunity to reflect on the lessons drawn from the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the chief Vatican spokesman said.

The pope’s four-day trip ended Sunday. 

“One cannot pass through Berlin without feeling the weight of the darkest page in the history of Germany and Europe in the last century: the madness for power and murder that marked the Nazi era,” the Rev. Federico Lombardo, the director of the Vatican press office, said on Vatican Television.

Lombardo said it had been important for the 84-year-old pope, in an address to the German Parliament, to describe the Nazi regime as a “highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”

It was important, too, for the pope to meet with a delegation of German Jews, which had included Holocaust survivors, Lombardo said.

“The light of those martyred by Nazism shines through the darkness of those times and continues to inspire the building of the future,” he said.

In Benedict’s first state visit back to his native country since his election as pope in 2005, thousands of people marched in Berlin protesting Vatican policy on clerical celibacy, contraception, homosexuality and the role of women, and carrying signs reading “Pope Go Home.” Seventy German lawmakers boycotted his speech to Parliament.

Pope meets with German Jewish leaders in Berlin


Pope Benedict XVI met with leaders of Germany’s Jewish community while on a visit to his homeland.

Benedict, who arrived Thursday in Berlin to visit his native Germany for the third time since becoming pope, met the Jewish leaders in a closed-door meeting in the Reichstag after addressing the German parliament. The meeting lasted about 25 minutes.

Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager. He has come under fire from the Jewish community for his work to beatify Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope who many accuse of not defending the Jews against the Nazis.

Museum of Tolerance to Create Exhibit on Pope John Paul II


On April 29, two days before Pope John Paul II was beatified in Rome, the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced plans to establish a new permanent exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles dedicated to the late pontiff.

A native of Poland, during his papacy John Paul worked to improve relations between the Catholic Church and world Jewry. He also conveyed the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust by making a visit to Auschwitz in 1979 and a visit to Yad Vashem in 2000. He was known to have met with many survivors of the Holocaust.

The John Paul exhibit is currently housed in a temporary space. It is set to be installed in its permanent location — the main exhibition space at the Museum of Tolerance, directly opposite the display containing the original office of Simon Wiesenthal, the center’s namesake — later this month.

Pope John Paul II, proponent of Jewish-Catholic relations, is beatified


Pope John Paul II, who made fostering Catholic-Jewish relations and remembering the Holocaust cornerstones of his papacy, was beatified at the Vatican.

John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, officiated at Sunday’s ceremony—the last step before canonization, or sainthood—before an estimated 1 million faithful and a live broadcast audience of millions more around the world.

The ceremony took place just hours before Yom Hashoah, when Jews around the world remember the Holocaust in prayer and ceremonies.

The Polish-born John Paul, who died in April 2005, served as pontiff for more than 26 years.

Born in 1920, John Paul had Jewish friends growing up and witnessed destruction during the Holocaust. Throughout his papacy, he reached out to Jews and met frequently with Jewish representatives, including Holocaust survivors, and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.

In 1986 he became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he visited Rome’s main synagogue, where he embraced the Rome chief rabbi and referred to Jews as Christianity’s “elder brothers in faith.”

During his reign, Israel and the Vatican established formal relations, and he made a pilgrimage to Israel in 2000, during which he prayed at the Western Wall.

“On this day of his beatification, it is only appropriate that we celebrate this leader who made a revolutionary impact in Catholic-Jewish relations within our lifetime, and that we of all faiths continue to learn from him,” Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey and the John Paul II Center for
Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, wrote in the Huffington Post.

At John Paul’s funeral, crowds called for him to be made a saint immediately. But Pope Benedict has come under criticism from some quarters for fast-tracking the sainthood process, waiving the usual five-year waiting period before it can begin.

Some critics also have called into question John Paul’s handling of the widespread sex abuse scandal involving priests and children that erupted during his reign.

Brooklyn Jew played key role for Pope John Paul II


When hundreds of thousands of people converge on the Vatican for the beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, a Brooklyn-born Jewish orchestra conductor will have an honored place among them.

Gilbert Levine, whose grandparents emigrated from Poland and whose mother-in-law was a survivor of Auschwitz, is a distinguished conductor who has performed with leading orchestras in North America, Europe and Israel.

For 17 years Levine enjoyed a unique, and unlikely,- relationship with the Polish-born John Paul, one that led him in 1994 to become the first American Jew to be granted a papal knighthood. Levine says it also played a role in his deciding to become more involved in his own Judaism; he now attends an Orthodox synagogue.

The connection between the pontiff and the maestro had much to do with the fostering of Jewish-Catholic relations that was a cornerstone of John Paul’s papacy. But it had little to do with formal meetings or dialogue sessions.

Instead, from 1988 until John Paul’s death in 2005 at the age of 84, Levine worked closely with the Polish pope to produce a series of landmark classical music concerts at the Vatican and elsewhere. Their aim was to use music as a tool to foster religious dialogue and reconciliation.

“The pope ennobled and enabled me to think that this was a mission that I should take with me for the rest of my life,” Levine told JTA in a telephone interview from his home in New York. “And I do, very gladly.”

The performances included the unprecedented Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah held at the Vatican on Yom HaShoah in 1994.

At the beginning of the concert, which featured the recitation of Kaddish by the actor Richard Dreyfuss, six Holocaust survivors lit six candles—one representing each of the 6 million Jewish victims. One of the survivors was Levine’s mother-in-law, Margit, who was born in Czechoslovakia and had lost 40 members of her family in the Holocaust.

The pope “believed that wordless prayer was incredibly important, and I believed that music gave voice to that wordless prayer,” Levine said. “I think he understood and came to understand through me that art can do a tremendous amount.”

Levine recounted the story of his years working with John Paul in an intensely personal memoir titled “The Pope’s Maestro,” which was published last fall. The book traces a relationship that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s longtime secretary, termed “a deep, spiritual friendship.”

“If a Jewish kid from Brooklyn can have a spiritual friendship with the pope, then the world can learn something,” Levine said in a video presentation about the book.

The friendship began in 1988, in the waning days of communism, when John Paul summoned Levine to a private audience at the Vatican shortly after Levine had become director of the philharmonic orchestra in John Paul’s beloved Krakow, the city that had been his archdiocese before he became pope in 1978.

From the early days of his pontificate, John Paul had signaled that outreach to the Jewish world would be one of his priorities.

Born Karol Wojtyla in the small town of Wadowice in 1920, John Paul had had Jewish friends and neighbors, and he was an eyewitness to both the Holocaust and totalitarian communism.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, recalls that at an audience at the Vatican with an AJC group in 1990, the pontiff “became very mystical and began to sway a bit and began talking about Friday afternoons in his hometown during the 1930s. He spoke of ‘candles in the windows, psalms being chanted.’

“He was clearly recalling erev Shabbat in Wadowice and his vivid remembrance of Jewish life in Poland before World War II,” said Rudin, author of the new book “Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.”

As pope, John Paul prayed at Auschwitz on his first trip back to Poland in 1979, and he repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust, and met with Jewish leaders and laymen.

In 1986 he crossed the Tiber River to Rome’s Great Temple to become the first pope to enter a synagogue. There he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi and paid respects to Jews as Christianity’s “elder brothers in faith.”

A few years later John Paul oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 2000 he visited the Jewish state.

John Paul’s death triggered an unprecedented outpouring of tribute from Jews around the world, and Jewish leaders joined the millions who crammed Rome for his funeral. There, in St. Peter’s Square, many faithful raised the cry “Santo Subito!”—a demand that John Paul II be made a saint right away.

The process ordinarily can take decades, even centuries. But John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, put the Polish pontiff on a fast track toward sainthood, waiving the usual five-year waiting period after a candidate’s death before the process may begin.

Beatification is a venerated status just one step away from sainthood. It can be granted after a candidate for sainthood is judged to have interceded to cause a miracle.

In John Paul’s case, the Vatican declared that a French nun said to have had Parkinson’s disease recovered after praying to him. A second miracle must be recognized before John Paul can be canonized, or made a saint.

“Miracles after the death are the ones that count toward beatification and canonization,” Levine explained.

He said John Paul as pope had wrought a sort of personal miracle in his own family—by “bringing peace” to Levine’s mother-in-law, who had been deeply scarred by her experiences during the Shoah and the annihilation of her family.

“The pope reached out to her, wanted to see her,” Levine said. The pope spoke intensely with her during a private audience, Levine said, “and he showed her that he understood, and that he heard her. The voice that was inside her, he heard it.”

After this, he said, “She was a changed woman. It wasn’t that it made everything all right—of course it couldn’t. But finally someone had heard and it was just so powerful. She felt this reaching out to her, and she died at peace.”

Levine said his bond with the pope also had a profound effect on his own Jewish identity. He and his family now worship at an Orthodox synagogue in New York.

“My sense of Judaism became much more powerful,” he said. “The pope honored my Judaism and the faith of our family so deeply and so honestly, from his heart, that it really just opened us up to our Jewish faith and heritage even more than it was before.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

A little late, Pope Benedict


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Pope wins praise for repudiating Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death


Jewish organizations are hailing Pope Benedict XVI’s unequivocal repudiation of the claim that the Jewish people can be held forever responsible for the death of Jesus.

The Vatican already rejected the claim in general terms in 1965 with the landmark Nostra Aetate document issued by the Vatican II Conference, opening the door to formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue. But in a new volume of his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict employs a detailed scholarly analysis of Catholic teaching to make the point clear.

The Anti-Defamation League called it “an important and historic moment” in Catholic-Jewish relations that would build on Nostra Aetate.

Excerpts of the book, which is due out March 10, were released Wednesday.

“Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death?” Benedict writes in a passage regarding Jesus’ condemnation to death by Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

Noting that the Gospel of St. John states that it was “the Jews,” he asks, “How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus’ death?” John’s use of the term, he writes, “does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it ‘racist’ in character. After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers.”

What John meant by “the Jews”, Benedict writes, was the priestly “temple aristocracy.”

In another passage, Benedict explicitly rejects the notion that the expression reported in the Gospel that “His blood be on us and on our children” meant an eternal curse against the Jewish people. Instead, the pontiff writes, “It means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, said the pope’s book marked “a landmark moment” in Catholic-Jewish relations.

“Pope Benedict’s theological repudiation of the deicide charge not only confirms the teachings of Vatican II, which formally rejected collective Jewish guilt, but seals it for a new generation of Catholics,” Steinberg said.

Vatican to beatify John Paul II


Pope John Paul II, who made bettering relations with the Jewish world a cornerstone of his papacy, will be beatified on May 1, placing the Polish-born pontiff one step closer to sainthood.

The Vatican announced Friday that Pope Benedict XVI will preside at the Vatican ceremony.

John Paul died in 2005 and was put on a fast track to be made a saint.

“His cause began before the end of the five-year period which the current norms stipulate must pass following the death of a Servant of God,” a statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints said. “This provision was solicited by the great fame of sanctity which Pope John Paul II enjoyed during his life, in his death and after his death.”

It said that the decision to beatify him came after the church recognized a miracle attributed to his intervention.

John Paul was elected pope in 1978. He had Jewish friends in his childhood and witnessed the Holocaust in Poland as young priest.

Throughout his papacy he reached out to Jews in unprecedented ways. In 1986 he visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue. He embraced the Rome chief rabbi and described Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers.”

He met frequently with Jewish groups and representatives, promoted memory of the Holocaust and spoke out against anti-Semitism, including issueing an apologiy for the persecution of Jews by Catholics.

Jewish officials meet with Italian leaders, pope


World Jewish Congress officials met with Pope Benedict XVI and separately with senior Italian officials, praising Italy for its support of Israel.

WJC President Ronald Lauder told Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in their meeting Friday that the Jewish world “deeply appreciates” its “important and well-established friendship with the Italian government” and also appreciates “Italian attention to the safety of the people of Israel.”  Italy, Lauder later said, “has a key role in advancing the peace process in the Middle East.”

During the meeting, Frattini, who on a visit to Israel last month referred to Italy as Israel’s “best friend” in Europe, awarded Lauder the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity.

The WJC delegation also had an audience at the Vatican on Friday with the pope and senior Vatican officials involved in interfaith relations. According to Vatican Radio, the WJC group “thanked the Pope for his commitment to dialogue with Jews,” and discussed aspects of the situation in the Middle East.

In a related development, the Vatican released a statement Friday describing a “good and open atmosphere” in Thursday’s latest round of talks aimed at finalizing bilateral economic relations between Israel and the Holy See. The talks, held in Jerusalem, started with mention of the telegram the pope sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing his “prayers and solidarity” with victims of the recent forest fire and his appreciation of the “selfless dedication” of those involved in the rescue operation.

Pope: I’ll fight anti-Semitism


Pope Benedict XVI told a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League that he would continue to fight anti-Semitism.

At a meeting Wednesday the pope thanked the ADL delegation, saying, according to an ADL statement issued after the meeting, “It is very important what you do.”

When asked if he would continue to condemn anti-Semitism, the Pope replied: “I will, you know I will,” according to the statement.

The statement said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman asked the pope to work against the isolation of Israel on the global stage. “Please do not permit the world to isolate Israel,” Foxman said. Benedict reportedly replied, “I will be there.”

The delegation also raised the issue of recent anti-Jewish statements by Greek-Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros of Newton, Mass., following last month’s Synod at the Vatican of bishops from the Middle East.

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