Deepening Catholic-Jewish relations will be high on the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI’s momentous week-long visit to the Holy Land, which begins tomorrow.

To help ensure his visit helps Catholic-Jewish relations as much as possible, traveling alongside — but very much in the background — will be Father Norbert Hofmann. A German Salesian, Father Hofmann is Secretary for the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, which works under the supervision of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Speaking to me just before he set off with the travelling papal party, Father Hofmann explained Catholic-Jewish relations are still healthy despite very public, recent controversies.

He said the Pius XII dispute, involving historically unfounded accusations that the wartime Pope failed to help protect Jews against the Holocaust, has always been “on the table.” But even after it came back prominently in the news with the 50th anniversary of Pius’s death last year, Father Hofmann said it caused “no step back or forward” in relations.

What Father Hofmann calls the “Williamson affair” — the controversy that erupted in January when it was disclosed that Bishop Richard Williamson of the schismatic traditionalist Society of St. Pius X had made Holocaust-denying comments shortly before the Pope lifted the excommunications against Bishop Williamson and the society’s other three bishops — was also less damaging than it would seem. The matter was simply “mismanaged,” Father Hofmann said.

The Vatican official conceded that the dialogue with the Jewish people “has always been difficult and will be difficult — there have been irritations and there will be irritations.” But, Father Hofmann added, “we are now friends and there’s a solid relationship — no irritation can shake completely these relations, that’s my impression.”

Interestingly, Father Hofmann made the point that just 10 years ago the Williamson affair “would have caused a breakdown in the relations for several years.” But now, thanks to advances in the dialogue that have occurred largely thanks to Popes John Paul II and Benedict, “we could manage these things in a couple of weeks or months, and so this is a good sign.”

Father Hofmann noted that he knows “personally” that it is in Benedict’s heart to deepen relations with Jewish people. And he added that partly due to the Pope’s German nationality, his visits to the Yad Vashem memorial and the Western Wall will be particularly poignant.

“These will be moving visits for the Jewish people,” Father Hofmann said, adding that the Pope will speak out against what many see as increasingly resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe. The Holy Father will stress how the Church is a “reliable ally” in the battle against anti-Semitism, he said.

So it seems from the Vatican’s viewpoint, this visit will should help place Catholic-Jewish relations even more firmly on the positive path that, contrary to some media reports, they had never deviated much in the first place.