Even when it was first announced last December, Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel looked misguided. Today, as he steps on to Israeli soil, it seems likely to worsen, rather than improve, damaged relations between the Catholic Church and Jews.
Take the earliest public act of Pope Benedict XVI. As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger was in the Hitler Youth and enlisted with the Wehrmacht. Yes, he had the excuse that this was standard practice for young German men at the time. But it is hardly the most propitious CV entry for popularity with Jews.
What was certainly not standard practice was his decision in 2004, when representing John Paul II at the 60th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, to visit La Cambe cemetery. Slipping away after official events, he took a 20-minute drive to the graves of the Waffen SS panzer division, Das Reich, including men such as Sturmbannf?hrer Adolf Diekmann, who commanded the troops who murdered 642 villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane. Ratzinger said that it was not for him to judge the men at La Cambe, “into whose conscience only God can see”.
So this Pope was already deeply suspect in the eyes of many Jews. Far worse, however, was his invitation this year to Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, to return to the Catholic fold. The excuse — that Benedict had no idea of his views — was ridiculously implausible. Williamson was infamous. Does the Vatican not have access to Google?
And last July he widened the use of the 1962 Latin Tridentine Mass, which includes a Good Friday prayer asking Catholics to “pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge Our Lord Jesus Christ”, asking God not to “refuse your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness”.
Negotiations surrounding his itinerary have been fraught. The Vatican objected to part of his visit to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, because one exhibit discusses Pope Pius XII’s “neutral position”. In a compromise, he will bypass that room.
If ever there was a case for avoiding public display and concentrating on quiet activity, surely it is this. Instead of a visit that risks inflaming already heated passions, far better to let the Pope’s future deeds demonstrate that his actions to date have been an aberration.
Stephen Pollard is Editor of The Jewish Chronicle.