Preparing for Jubilee 2000
As the countdown towards the end of the millennium continues, the Vatican has stepped up the pace of its self-proclaimed "process of purification" from historical anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic acts committed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Dear to the heart of Pope John Paul II - who in 1990 announced the need for the Church to do "tshuva" (Hebrew for repentance) for its centuries-long teaching of contempt for the Jews - the plan is for this process to culminate in a world-wide, Vatican-led declaration of "repentance" in 2000.
The aim, in turn, is to lay the groundwork for a new era of Christian-Jewish co-existence in the 21st century.
Alongside this progress towards renewed religious relations, diplomatic manoeuvring has been underway to bring about a new political reality between the states of Vatican City and Israel.
Apparently there is at once an effort by Rome to mollify Jewish anger and suspicions borne out of Christianity's past, and to ensure that the Catholic Church - which in its eyes is the only true representative of Christianity - has a say in the future of Jerusalem and "the Holy Land".
This two-fold strategy came into clear focus in recent weeks, as a flurry of Vatican activity sent decidedly different messages to the Jewish world in general, and the Jewish state in particular.
The first, acclaimed by Rome as a milestone along the road to "purification", was the March 16 publication by the Vatican of a long-awaited document called: "We remember: A reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust)".
It had been over ten years since the pope promised to draw up the paper, which was supposed to look specifically at the Vatican's role during World War II. As the decade passed, a number of churches and some high-ranking Roman Catholic officials publicly confessed to the sin of anti-Semitism in the history of Christianity and requested forgiveness of the Jewish people.
As such, the Vatican document was eagerly awaited by Jews, many of whom anticipated a confession in similar vein of Roman Catholicism's failure openly to oppose the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies and activities.
Jewish disappointment was nearly universal, then, when "We remember…" failed to deal at all with the Church's responsibility, as an institution, for permitting the Holocaust to take place without opposition. It furthermore failed to criticise then-pope Pius XII for remaining silent about the mass-murder of Europe's Jews - in fact it praised him for saving Jewish lives. And it diluted the uniqueness of the Nazis' crimes by ranking them alongside other acts of attempted genocide.
In response to sharp Jewish criticism of his encyclical, John Paul called on Jews and Roman Catholics to continue their dialogue with "renewed openness and trust".
But Vatican watchers have noted what they call a "new Catholic line" on the Holocaust which will militate against a development of that trust.
Dr Geoffrey Wigoder, one of two Israeli representatives on the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations with Christians, told The Jerusalem Post (March 17) that what appeared in the document was a new Catholic line which first came to light at a conference on anti-Semitism organised by the Vatican last October.
The pope had said that in the Christian world, although not on the part of the Church itself, there were erroneous interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people. It was not the Church that was to blame, but individuals who fell short of the Christian ideal.
"This flies in the face of history," contests Wigoder, noting that the Church fathers themselves had interpreted the New Testament in an anti-Jewish manner. "It was the Church councils which ruled against the Jews; and it was the popes themselves who drove the Jews out of civilised life, locking them up in ghettos."
Three weeks after the publication of the Vatican paper, on Good Friday (April 10), the pope astonished Jews world-wide when he made the unprecedented public statement that the Jewish people had "been crucified by us [the Christian world] for too long". It was "not they, but we, each and every one of us" who were and are responsible for Christ's crucifixion, he said.
John Paul was not the first pope publicly to retract the accusation of deicide, which more than any other charge spurred vicious Christian anti-Semitism throughout Asia and Europe down the ages. In 1959 John XXIII convened the Vatican II council which exonerated the Jews of the charge of crucifying Jesus. Shortly before his death he composed a prayer of atonement for the Church's accusation against the Jews: "Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time."
Nonetheless, John Paul's message was seen as especially noteworthy, made as it was, at Easter, the time more than any other on the Christian calendar associated with anti-Semitism.
Which made peculiar, then, the pontiff's decision to use his Easter Sunday address to single out Israel and Jerusalem from numerous, far more violent and misery-plagued places on earth, and to allot the blame for the strife at the door of the Israeli government.
The pope prayed that his proclamation of peace would be heard, "especially in the Middle East, and particularly in Jerusalem where peace is put at risk by dangerous political decisions".
A papal visit to Jerusalem has long been anticipated, and numerous reports in the last two years have suggested that such a pilgrimage will take place as the new millennium comes in.
One week after Easter, however, the Vatican's Secretary of Relations between States, Jean Louis Tauran, dismissed wide-spread rumours that John Paul would visit Israel's capital soon.
"In today's political context," Tauran said "the conditions necessary for a papal visit do not exist". Instead of being a symbol of peace, a pontifical pilgrimage to the Holy Land would 'legitimise [and] consecrate situations of international injustice'.
For all its efforts to make the expected soothing noises for Jewish consumption, Rome's colours remain firmly fixed to the mast.