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Pope Benedict’s Yom Kippur Mass: Colossal Faux Pas or Wonderful Opportunity?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

Both great irony and a profound opportunity for all of us can be found as Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII, whose response to the Nazis stirs controversy to this day. The mass coincides with the historic visit of Haifa Chief Rabbi, Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the first Rabbi to address a Vatican synod, who spoke at the Synod of the Word on Monday.
Rabbi Cohen has been a fearless proponent of inter-religious dialogue and advocate for religious pluralism in Israel. But according to David Gibson’s Beliefnet blog, Pontifications, Cohen said, that he would have stayed away had he understood the context of his visit. I find those words sad, understandable and wrong-headed.
The fact that this is all happening around Yom Kippur is so powerful. On a day which celebrates that we can stand before God and get a second chance, no matter what we have done, Catholics and Jews have the opportunity to engage in a more honest dialogue than ever before because it can happen in the context of two pledges which reflect the ethos of the holiday, which is ultimately a joyous day.
First, let us pledge that we can say anything to each other because, like God and the ancient Israelites, we will not abandon this relationship even when we disappoint each other. And second, we both believe in the possibility of starting over, of moving beyond the past without having to forget it. We will not make this about those who want to forget versus those who honor memory. Instead, we will figure out together how to honor the memories of all those we love.


But the tensions reported by today’s Religion New Service story about the “Yom Kippur Mass” point in another direction. They suggest that each side is gearing up for an evidence war in which they can prove their desired outcome i.e. that Pope Pius was a life-saving hero during the war, or that he was a passive spectator who failed to stop the murder of thousands, if not millions. What if each of those claims is partially true?
There is no question, that Pius saved many lives during the Holocaust, and in the words of Pope Benedict, “that wherever possible, he spared no effort”. But reasonable people can disagree about the definition of what was possible for Pius, and feel deep disappointment that his sincere definition of that term may in fact have fallen far short of the mark. The Saintly Pius/Sinner Pius will get us nowhere. And like many wars, the “Pius wars” may be a confrontation between two absolutist positions, each of which is partially true.
If Catholics could acknowledge that the pained disappointment of Jews is not simply an anti-Catholic canard, and Jews could imagine that despite the enormous power that we attribute to the Church, it may be that even the Pope couldn’t do all that we would have hoped for during those terrible years. Are we even ready to admit those things? To put down the blame which fuels the fire of memory, or admit the limitations in courage and vision which effect even great leaders?
Yom Kippur promises that all of this is possible. It promises that past mistakes can be admitted without undermining the sacredness of those who committed them, and can even, with honest accounting, propel those who made them to a spiritual level beyond even those who have never made any mistakes at all. If that is how both sides approach this issue, we will find ourselves living in a new era of interfaith encounter — one more interested in the future than in the past even as we pledge that the past will never be forgotten. I hope that both Yom Kippur and tomorrow’s mass give us the courage to do just that.



  • Ronald McDonald

    I think many Jews, but also many Protestants, many Atheists and many Muslims tend to exagerate the real power of the Church, and behave as if Catholics were mindless soldiers of the Pope and that the Pope was a military general (cf Stalin). Now THAT is a canard, and a most unfortunate one.
    I don’t think WW2 can be reduced to simple moral considerations ; there were political, sociologial and economical elements which were beyond any possible control and that had been building for 50 + years.
    Many actors in this debate also fail to grasp the enduring power of the Enlightment in the European mentality, which durably removed any possible Church internvention for a long time in favor of not just Jews, but also poor people, secular governments, secular scientists and a host of other social sectors such as secular education and secular health care, which ultimately contributed to the de-humanization of the Jews and the Nomadic peoples of the continent.

  • Michael Karg

    I really don’t want to write this but I have been thinking of it for a long time, so here goes.
    What if, in the Pope’s holiness and wisdom, he had talked Hitler into embracing the Jews of Europe? It shouldn’t have been too hard to do. Yes, Pius XII could have pointed out to Adolf, “Look, the greatest percentage of your scientific and legal minds happen to be Jewish. Your best advances in physics, medicine, philosophy — even in the Seven Arts, are coming from people of the Jewish persuasion. You’ll quickly get nuclear power; you’ll be able to market the best health drugs, medicines and surgical procedures — even the best movies, theatrical theatre, and the best literature.”
    And what if Hitler liked the idea?
    In the Old Testament traditions, it looks to me like G-d had a different plan. Yes, it looks to me like G-d decided to get a guy to “bring His people” away from this possibility. Yes, that looks bad, unconscionable, in fact. However, no different from some of G-d’s other decisions in the Old Testament.
    Yes, I said I didn’t want to write this. It leads me to thinking that Judeo-Christian thinking about G-D is very strange indeed. Accordingly, I thought it, and I am of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
    Any rabbi or priest or reverand care to comment?

  • ray

    I wish best of wishes to our brothers jews on YK. I would have to agree with Brad. As a muslim I can relate to what he is saying. I think most of the religious people who called them religious one should run away from them as far as possible, Religion means intolerance and biggotry. Be it a Pope, Rabbi, Mufti or an Imam. in my view religious types were supposed to be the most protective of other people beliefs and tradtions. However, historically they have been nothing but vengeful scoundrels who have been more blood thirsty then dracula. Not being a historian I felt that the best days of the muslim civilization were relized when like Babar ruled in India and the sultans in Baghdad, who were considered worst mulims by thheir own religious folks, were also the best protectors of other tradtions and people of all traditions and beliefs flourished.
    I think someone needs to study this phenomenon. I think religion is nothing more then a symbolism or cult that needs to be kept private or gotten rid of. It is about time humanity matured.I am sorry but I marvel at the garb and symblism of religious hiearchy in this day and age and it is seems comical and funny and totally ancient.

  • Jonathan Weiss

    I was deeply impacted by Rabbi Hirschfield’s comments….and while responses have been heart-felt and honest, I believe they perpetuate the opposite feelings about what Yom Kippur signifies. We are all mortal, yet paradoxically immortal, having been created in God’s image. We certainly have the inherent potential, as well as the ability for forgiveness and self-improvement. The past is just that……the past…..we exist now, and our focus might well be about absorbing what we have learned and how to implement these lessons going forward.
    May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for this year and many to come.

  • S H Ziegler

    Can we change what Pius did or didn’t do? Have we made our point for over 60 years? If he did wrong that will now be between him and his G-d We are taught to forgive at this time of year. Live in the present you cannot change the past. Remember, but forgive

  • Jim

    Better for the Pope to attend a Yom Kippur service than to substitute a Christian mass for one. Certainly acknowledgment of this Holy Day by Christianity is welcomed. And certainly it is good for Christians to deepen their knowledge of their religion’s Judaic ground. But given a long tradition of supercession, of taking over Jewish traditions as if they only found their fulfillment in Christianity, Christian rituals that seek to replace or modify Jewish ones continue to be the most profound of dangers to Judaism. The Pope is ethically bound in my mind to avoid extending any further the Christian appropriation of Jewish tradition. Sometimes simple silence in acknowledgment of another tradition’s truths is the most attentive response one can give.

  • rebecca carlson

    I can’t resist sharing my best Yom Kippur joke. What do you say to the Pope on Yom Kippur? Good Yontiff, Pontiff!

  • LAURA MUSHKAT

    don’t kow enough about Pius to comment altho he certainly has an awful rep on so many things
    Rightly or wrongly whenever they complain about Benedict I think of Pius. That is just the thing that pops into my head.
    Only a real live saint could have successfully filled the shoes of the last Pope.
    Benedict has tried to make his mark in his own way. It has to be hard on a person similar to an athlete who goes into the same type of athletic job his dad had who was a great hero and now has to try and not be compared. That is as nice as I can be about Benedict.
    There are things he has done like go to a shul in the US>another Pope might have been applauded. Benedict was looked upon by many as using this strictl for PR.
    I could be mistaken since I pay little attention to the day to day Catholic Church-but it seems to me that there have been statements by the Pope that he was bringing back into the church prayers and ideas that were set aside as being anti-semitic by previous Popes and clerics.
    I believe that RC missionaries often try to convert Prtotestants to save their souls and visa versa. Therefore maybe the Pope’s bringing back prayers that Jews should save their souls in the same way should not be that surprising, but I think I heard there was more. What it was I do not know. I could absoulutley be wrong. Maybe people do not like a German Pope and are making up these stories or embellishing them. I do not know.
    It seems tho that this Pope may be arragont or misunderstood but he certainly has done thing to upset non Catholics like Muslims and Jews.
    Lately I have read blogs, as I believe they are called or articles as I think of them, here where Rabbi Brad thinks it is wrong to stand up and speak out against those we see as our enemies or potential trouble makers or actual trouble makers as, to quote his term, “wrong-headed”. I could be misunderstanding his stance but it seems a lot like, altho the circumstances may have been different from now hopefully, where Jewish leaders thought somewhat the same ways of those who were Nazis and had yet to show their true colors. Again I could just be misunderstanding him because in the length of the aritcles he seems to have to keep things to a certain length and does not or maybe even can not explain his stance properly.
    I do want to remind the readers here and the Rabbi-the idea of turning the other cheeck is against Jewish policy if not Jewish law.
    Hugs
    Laura

  • Anonymous

    Why are you all suspicious of a Pope who is attempting to build a bridge between two peoples of faith. Your own Rabbi’s have stated in print and published how much Pius X11 did for the Jews and how very much he helped them escape the Nazi’s. He, Pius X11 is so much maligned. He did as much one could. I had a Jewish friend who stated a catolic family hid his family from the Jews in WW11, and if put in the circumstances he would not have done the same, he wouldn’t have jeopardized his family for another. I do not understand individuals who praise and distrust as the same time. We should get on with the business of making a better world were we can be at peace with one another.

  • Ann Thor

    Jim said it very well in his blog of Oct. 9, 2008
    It seems as if one invades sacred territory to attempt to take over the tradition of another faith as if it ” found fulfillment in Christianity.”
    Also, I agree with him that “Sometimes simple silence in acknowledgment of another tradition’s truth is the most attentive response one can give.”
    Thank you, Jim – Let us not trample on the holy by trying to change it or adapt it to another way of thinking.

  • Joe

    B”H
    While I respect Christians for their faith, Jews cannot be expected to forget all the pain the Church inflicted on our people over the past 2,000 years.
    And who was the Pope who ordered Catholic orphanages NOT to reveal the identity of Jewish children who were “rescued” during the war, when Jewish agents were travelling over Europe to bring these children back to their homes, or to Israel, to continue living their lives as Jews?
    One touching story in this situation, was where a Rabbi visited a Catholic orphange and inquired of any Jewish children living there. He was told there were not Jewish children in that institution, and the children were gathered together to demonstrated this “fact.”
    However, the Rabbi thought for a moment, then called out, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad!”
    To which a number of children responded “Boruch Shem Kavod Malchuso L’Olom Vo’Ed…”

  • oceanshores

    This was a quote by the late Pope John Paul II.
    “I remember…the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish.
    I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school. Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God.
    Despite their different languages, prayers in the church and in the synagogue were based to a considerable degree on the same texts.”
    _________________________________
    “Crossing the Theshhold of Hope”
    _________________________________
    He apologized for the “wrong-doings” that the Church did, however there were several Catholics that did good deeds toward the Jews.
    When Anne Frank went into hiding, she lived with a Catholic Family, Oskar Schindler helped rescue Jews from the concentration camps, and many others like them participated in rescuing them from death.
    These Catholics risked their lives as well doing what we(Catholics) believe was an injustice towards the Jews.
    I too come from a Jewish background, but because my mother is not Jewish, I am not considered a Jew.
    We should try to accept and respect our differences, so that our children don’t ever live through what our parents or grandparents lived through.
    Religions and beliefs should not create barriers of hatred, it should create bridges of trust and respect towards each other, afterall…we all share the same world.
    Regardless of what language we speak, the color of our skin, and how we communicate, we are all human.
    AMEN

  • http://www.vaticanbankclaims.com/piussin.htm Dr. Jonathan Levy

    With the 50th Anniversary of the death of Pius XII, the Vatican is again pushing for his sainthood. While Pius can be legitimately criticized for his tepid condemnations of the Nazi Holocaust there is no question he was complicit in the deaths of at least 500,000 Orthodox Christian Serbs, Jews and Roma murdered in Croatia, Bosnia, and Krajina during the Second World War by the Axis allied Croatian regime.

  • Your Name

    let us all remember JESUS was in fact a jew….

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