Before he even met with leaders of other Christian sects, Pope Benedict XVI met with Jewish leaders. Before he visited the houses of worship of any other faith, Benedict visited a synagogue.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had a relationship with Jews going back to his youth in Poland. He knew the hardships they faced; he knew the tragedy that had befallen them. His heart grieved, especially because he saw in past Catholic teachings seeds for the Shoah, and so he built on the foundations of Vatican Council II to create a new, positive, even warm relationship with Jews the world over, and especially with the Jewish state.
Benedict had no such background. Yet he expanded the work of his predecessor, making every effort to turn one pope’s vision into a new Catholic reality. He even invited Jewish leaders to attend his ascension to the papacy – a historic first for any pope, including John Paul II.
To be sure, there were tensions at times. Benedict headed the Catholic Church, and as such had to take Catholic interests into account. He made overtures to a dishonored group within the church that held unfriendly attitudes toward the Jews. For a brief time, he revived a Latin Easter mass that was offensive to Jews; he revised the mass when he realized that the original was painful to us.
For a time, too, it seemed as though he was on a course to turn the Shoah-era pope, Pius XII, into a saint. Again, however, he responded to Jewish sensitivities. He did so to such an extent, that he did not even beatify Pius, as had been expected. Beatification is a prerequisite to sainthood.
We also took issue with the way he handled internal Catholic matters, especially the child abuse scandals, but these do not deflect from his forwarding of relations with Jews and Judaism.
When Benedict resigns at the end of this month, Catholic cardinals will meet in conclave to choose a new pope. We can only hope that the man who steps into the fisherman’s shoes continues the work begun at Vatican II, work that was carried out so faithfully by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.