Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 1999
Pope John Paul II deserves great credit for his work to correct injustices inflicted by Catholics on those of other faiths. He has reached out not only to Jews but to Orthodox and Protestant Christians; but his greatest efforts, his repeated ones, have to do with the Jews. He has issued a statement, We Remember, lamenting the Holocaust and many Catholics’ inadequate response to it. He publicly and ceremonially apologized to the Jews at a Lenten service this year. He visited a synagogue and in March visited Israel and manifested sincere anguish at what Jews have suffered. There are many signs that these moves have had their desired effect. One indication of that comes from two articles by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz in the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, one just before the Pope’s trip to Israel and one during it.
In the first article, an open letter to the Pope, Oz remembered past insults—e.g., some nuns on a train who asked him how Jews could have killed so good a man as Jesus. The effect of similar affronts had embittered his family. When, as a boy, he asked his aunts about Christians, they were no more willing to answer him than they were when he asked questions about sex. He finally went to his grandmother to learn what it was that divided Christians from Jews. She said that Christians think the Messiah has come once and will come again, but the Jews are still waiting for him. She philosophically wondered, why not just wait and see? If the Messiah appears and says, “Nice to see you again,” the Christians will have been right. If he says, “Happy to make your acquaintance,” the Jews will. But Oz’s only surviving aunt was not so philosophical on the eve of the Pope’s visit. She wanted no mere words from the man. Nothing would satisfy her but the Pope’s ordering the Palestinians to leave the Holy Land.
During the Pope’s visit, the paper returned to Oz for an interview. Had his aunt softened her resentment?No, he said: “Only if the Pope had torn the cross from his neck and fallen on the ground to beg forgiveness for the historical sins of the Church against the Jews might she have allowed herself a mere flicker of acceptance.” But Oz himself had been profoundly affected by the Pope’s actions and words in Israel. “Generations on generations of Jews would have paid I know not what to have seen what we were part of today in Jerusalem…. It is an epochal turning point, a revolution of great historical consequence.” The Pope deserves credit for doing what none of his predecessors ever did. The generous response of Amos Oz is a real cause for hope.
Is the matter settled, then? One can wonder, since the very terms in which the apologies are couched and explained seem to reopen questions while trying to close them. That problem haunts, for instance, the Vatican document Memory and Reconciliation,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.