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.