For the first time in more than 600 years, a sitting pope is resigning his office.
How will history look upon the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, specifically with his relations with the Jewish world?
As a Jewish observer, blessed to have had the unique privilege of interaction with this Pope, I humbly offer my personal experience and my opinion on how the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI on Catholic-Jewish relations should be viewed.
My wife, Meredith, and I, along with, at times, members of the board of directors of the Pave the Way Foundation, met with Pope Benedict XVI on 19 occasions, beginning when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Cardinal Ratzinger held the post of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than 24 years. In that capacity, he guided the Church and its relations with the Jewish people during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
We knew that, as pope, he would move the Church along the same path of reconciliation as his predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI was different, however. His devotion to faith guided him to take controversial positions with far-reaching impact. He made many thoughtful gestures to the Jewish world.
In May 2006, our organization was honored to join Pope Benedict during his pilgrimage to Poland and historic visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that special day, when he prayed at the monument to martyrs, a rainbow appeared in the sky over the camp, which seemed to signify G-d’s approval of this significant act.
In September 2006, he condemned the use of religion to justify violence in remarks to Muslim leaders during his pilgrimage to his home of Regensburg, Germany. The remarks stirred much controversy and even evoked death threats.
Such a statement took enormous courage, but he said what he believed needed to be said in light of increased worldwide violence in the name of Islam.
Demonstrating his strength of conviction, in January 2009, he took an action that has been widely misreported and misunderstood, resulting in an extreme negative reaction, especially from the Jewish world.
He lifted the ban of excommunication against four bishops of the Society of Pope Pius X. One of its members, illicitly ordained Bishop Richard Williamson, gained notoriety as a Holocaust denier. Many people erroneously assumed that his lifting the excommunication welcomed the society back into the Church. However, that is simply untrue.
In reality, the decree just legally allowed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith an avenue by which to open communications with the group and attempt to convince them that it is better to discuss differences while in communion with the Church than not.
Throughout discussions with the SSPX, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict XVI stood steadfast and resolute on demanding the recognition of Jewish-Catholic relations. Negotiations so far have failed, and the SSPX remains outside full communion from the worldwide Catholic Church.
In May 2009, Pope Benedict XVI followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by returning to Israel and the Holy Land. During his visit, he laid a wreath at Yad Vashem’s memorial in Jerusalem and said that the Holocaust victims “lost their lives, but they will never lose their names.”
He also made a spiritual journey to the Western Wall, where he recited Psalm 122, a prayer traditionally said by pilgrims: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”
In March 2011, Pope Benedict XVI issued a sweeping exoneration of Jews for the death of Christ in his book Jesus of Nazareth.
There are always trepidations within the Jewish world whenever the seat of the bishop of Rome is vacated. What will the successor bring?
When we, as Jews, observe the actions of Pope Benedict XVI, we can reach only one conclusion: The Church will continue along the path that was traveled by the last five popes. Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and cooperation will move forward no matter who the next pope might be.
To our friend, this wonderful, thoughtful and brave Pontiff, Your Holiness, thank you for all you have done. We will miss you.
Gary Krupp is the co-founder and president of the Pave the Way Foundation,
the only non-sectarian organization in the world whose mission
is to improve relations between the world’s religions.