Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From Rome, a gesture of unity

With a touch of flickering flame to the top of a bronze candelabrum yesterday, a Vatican official sought to reassure the Jewish community that there is no room in the Catholic Church for anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who is Pope Benedict XVI's top adviser on Catholic-Jewish relations, visited the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Boston Sunday and took several steps to calm the controversy that has erupted since the pope lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, one of whom denies that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews.

Over a salmon lunch with 50 Jewish community leaders, Kasper fielded a series of tough questions about the Vatican's actions. He then joined a ceremony to rededicate a Holocaust memorial, originally located at the archdiocese's former headquarters in Brighton, which depicts six men and women holding torches to represent the 6 million Jews killed before and during World War II.

"The memory of what happened, now 65 years ago, cannot be forgotten," Kasper told a crowd of about 200 at the rededication ceremony, including priests and rabbis, several Holocaust survivors, and consuls general of Israel and Germany. "No Holocaust denial, which is a new injustice to the victims, can be allowed or permitted."

But the raw emotions exposed by the controversy over Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X were clear.

Israel Arbeiter, the president of the Boston chapter of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, recounted the deaths of his parents and brother in concentration camps and of seeing the remains of Jews killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, before addressing Kasper and saying, "Pain and suffering have been inflicted again on the Holocaust survivors by a representative of the church, namely, Bishop Williamson, and by the action and inaction by Pope Benedict XVI."

Arbeiter also praised the Catholic Church, calling Kasper's visit "deeply meaningful." He referred to Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston as a friend and said that the pope has taken a number of constructive steps in recent weeks to address the controversy.

But he said he would like to hear the pope directly refute Williamson's assertion that the Nazis did not use gas chambers.

"Years after the liberation of Auschwitz, with all the available documentation, confirmation by the German government, testimony by the perpetrators, Bishop Williamson still denies the truth, the fact of the Holocaust," he said. " . . . I will never understand that he denies that there were ever gas chambers, that Jewish people were gassed and murdered. . . . I wonder whether Bishop Williamson knows where my parents and my brother are."

Local Jewish and Catholic community leaders said they viewed Kasper's visit as a significant development, in that it affirmed the high priority the Vatican places on Catholic-Jewish relations.

"Words are helpful, but actions like today's rededication are more powerful, more meaningful, and more enduring," said Derrek L. Shulman, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We welcome and celebrate this day as a major step forward for strengthening relations between Jews and Catholics in the Boston area."

O'Malley, who organized the event, called the Holocaust "the greatest act of inhumanity ever perpetrated on this planet" and said yesterday's event was intended "to assure the entire community of the Holy Father and the church's commitment to furthering these wonderful relationships that have been cultivated the last decades."

O'Malley pointed out that Catholic-Jewish relations in Boston have been strong since the days of Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, who in the 1960s helped draft a pivotal document at the Second Vatican Council that repudiated the basis for Christian anti-Semitism.

Kasper said that the outcry from Catholics irate over Williamson's remarks and over the Vatican's action, was evidence that Catholics have internalized the importance of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said that the response to the uproar had provided evidence of the overall strength of the Jewish-Catholic relationship, citing the speed and candor with which local leaders had been able to meet and talk.

"It speaks to the power of the relationship that we have worked on so hard in this community over 40 or 50 years," Kaufman said. "Some of us here today can remember a time when relations between Catholics and Jews in Boston were not so good, and we didn't have the ability to have an honest and open dialogue among and between each other, and I think the ability to raise difficult issues like this one, and to have the discussion . . . speaks to the strength of the relationship."
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