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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 9: 
The Catholic Church getting directly involved in the “Road to Peace” process.

This story also speaks to Predictions 10 and 12:
Prediction 10:
A call by the Vatican for Christians throughout the world to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  See this below

Prediction 12: A visit by cardinals and/or the Pope himself to Jerusalem/Middle East.  See this below

Israel’s call to Catholics
James Roberts

New possibilities on the road to peace in the Middle East are being opened up by Jerusalem’s developing rapport with the Vatican

THE ANNOUNCEMENT last week that the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is to visit the Vatican on 17 November has been widely seen as momentous. After almost 2,000 years of enmity, this is another giant step towards lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews. It is clear already, after Benedict XVI’s visit to a synagogue in Cologne on World Youth Day, and his hosting of a visit by senior rabbis on 15 September, that relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism will be a main focus of his papacy.

 “Relations with the Jewish state are one of the priorities of Pope Benedict,”.

Less remarked on has been the commitment on the part of Israel to this process, which has its roots not only in theological concerns but also in deeply political ones.

On the day of the announcement on 30 September, I spent an hour and a half in the company of Obed Ben-Hur, Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican. It was plain from our conversation that Israel is looking to Rome to help bring about a new climate – what Obed Ben-Hur called a “psychology of peace” – in the Middle East. “Jesus being the Prince of Peace,” the ambassador said, “the Church has a major role in the potentially new psychology of the whole Israeli-Arab conflict”. The diplomatic initiative on both sides is rooted in and built around Nostra Aetate, the shortest, but one of the most far-reaching, of the Second Vatican Council declarations. The fortieth anniversary of the publication of the declaration on 28 October is being used as a handy peg on which to hang a number of important proposals.

Israel believes that a strong alliance with the Vatican could promote real progress towards ending a conflict that has defeated generations of politicians. This depends in part on bringing to completion those elements of the Catholic-Jewish relationship that were neglected in Nostra Aetate – that is, the inter-state relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel.

Many in Israel, while they acknowledge Pope John XXIII as a true friend of the Jewish people, who helped saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, nevertheless see the document that defined the Church’s relation to non-Christian religions as a pale shadow of the one that John XXIII had in mind when he set the Council processes in motion. The Pope understood only too well the European anti-Semitism that helped create a climate in which the Holocaust was possible, and the document that finally appeared after his death duly insisted that the Jews were not to be held responsible for the death of Christ. And, perhaps most powerfully, it testified to the Church’s belief that “by his Cross, Christ, our peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself”.

But Nostra Aetate made no mention of the state of Israel. Pope John, Obed Ben-Hur believes, had been ready to consider the request made by Jewish representatives to recognize Israel, but the response from sections of the Church to the proposals regarding Judaism was so hostile that there was no chance that the final declaration would cover the state of Israel itself. According to Franz König, one of the council architects, “The mere fact that the question was to be discussed at all immediately met with violent opposition from the Arab world, the Eastern Churches and from a small but vociferous conservative group of council bishops around Archbishop Lefebvre.” Right up to the end of the Council, Cardinal König wrote in his book Open to God, Open to the World: the Last Testament (edited by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt and published by Continuum), this opposition mobilised the media and evoked diplomatic protests from the Arab states. As a result of this pressure, drafts were changed “at least four or five times”.

The Vatican only recognized Israel in 1993, and is still negotiating the Fundamental Agreement that will be the legal foundation for the relationship with Israel.

Despite the perceived deficiencies of Nostra Aetate, Israel now sees the document as a historical turning point in relations between the faiths. Most specifically, the “substitution theory” – the spurious theological justification for the diaspora, according to which the expulsion of the Jews from Israel was part of a punishment by God which also made Christians the new Israel – was un-equivocally and explicitly rejected. Unfortunately, according to Obed Ben-Hur, the new teaching did not reach all levels of the Church. The popes, cardinals and bishops have promulgated it, he says, but “it never got down to the grass roots, in the sense that only in a very few cases was it taught in the formation seminars of priests”. Large areas of the Catholic world were therefore left “un-updated, so to speak”, he claims, and these include, he believes, “Muslim or Arab countries where you have small Catholic communities”.

To help remedy this, Israel would like to see a day in the Church’s calendar devoted to Nostra Aetate on which, across the Catholic world, churches would study the document’s teaching. This proposal was put to the Pope by rabbis on15 September and, according to Obed Ben-Hur, the reply was encouraging.

[Speaking to prediction 10]

Added to this, Israel would like to see a massive increase in pilgrimages to the region. “They [the pilgrims] can help us drown in a sea of love,” Obed Ben-Hur said.

Standing in the way of this happy scenario, however, are a set of seemingly intractable problems. In 1967, when it changed its boundaries by force of arms, Israel stopped being seen as the David of the region and started being seen as the Goliath. The fact that it has so often been the victim of terrorist atrocities has not won it the whole-hearted sympathy, internationally, that any innocent victims of terror deserve, since its treatment of Palestinians is so widely condemned, not least by a large body of Catholic opinion. Its sense of injustice on this score was seen most recently on 24 July when Pope Benedict condemned recent acts of terror against several countries, including Britain, but failed to mention the suicide bombing in Netanya on 12 July that killed three people. The papal nuncio was summoned to Jerusalem to be told that the Pope had “deliberately failed” to mention the terrorist attack on Israel. The friction was smoothed over but this is a deeply sensitive area with potential for producing further setbacks. And while the wall that Israel has constructed at a cost of more than $3 bn. to keep out would-be suicide-killers has proved remarkably effective in reducing the number of terrorist atrocities, Israel is well aware that it creates major difficulties for Palestinian and Christian communities and that the Government has not won any points in the international arena by this device.

As for the ongoing negotiations with the Vatican on the Fundamental Agreement, the main sticking points, according to the ambassador, are on matters of principle. The Church wants the Agreement to have “extraterritoriality”, that is for it to be fixed once and for all. Israel cannot agree to this because, it says, it would be “bombarded” with similar demands from Muslims and Jews as well as other Christians.

[Speaking to Prediction 12]

But while the success of this process depends partly on the will and skill of the negotiators, it will also depend on the decisions of Pope Benedict XVI. “Relations with the Jewish state are one of the priorities of Pope Benedict,” Father Norbert Hoffman, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews, said in London last week. Meanwhile, the Pope has been invited to Israel twice by the Prime Minster, Ariel Sharon. “I heard him say he was very happy to receive this invitation,” said the ambassador. “ ‘Israel enjoys a priority’, he said that. He didn’t say high priority, or low priority. He said priority.” Over the coming months, we are likely to see exactly what level of priority Israel is for Benedict XVI.

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