Pope Benedict to Make Rare Synagogue Visit

They say that after the exuberant embrace of Pope John Paul, who as a young man was a witness to the Holocaust in southern Poland, Benedict's reintroduction of this old prayer without removing specific reference to Jews seems, by comparison, both retrograde and condescending.

The Vatican Secretariat of State has issued a statement insisting that the newly reissued prayer "in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews," but the chill remains for some.

Schneier Insists

Enter Arthur Schneier, one very exuberant American rabbi, who, since escaping the Holocaust, has been continually active in promoting interfaith dialogue and respect worldwide from his base at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue, which he has led since 1962.

Schneier, according to some of his friends, just wouldn't hear of Benedict visiting New York -- home to more Jews than anywhere outside of Israel -- without visiting the Jews, and after dogged diplomatic insistence with Vatican contacts, got Benedict to agree a few weeks ago to drop by his Manhattan synagogue Friday on the way to an ecumenical meeting with non-Catholic Christians.

Accentuating the positive -- and perhaps sensing that Benedict has a willing but slightly more awkward and "professorial" style than the ebullient John Paul -- the irrepressible Schneier says that "basically, Benedict's message is: 'I am continuing the outreach to the Jews.'"

Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, typifies the synagogue drop-in as "not part of his official program," but is aimed to "express the pope's goodwill toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover."

However "unofficial" the visit, it is historic, as all parties are well aware. It will be only the third time on record a pope has entered a synagogue -- Benedict in Cologne, Germany, four months after his election, and John Paul in Rome in 1986 -- and the first time ever in the United States.

Special Gesture

In fact, before Benedict flies to New York he will make another special gesture to American Jews — appropriately enough at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington this evening.

After meeting with representatives of the major religions there, he will retire briefly and separately with the Jewish leaders to offer his special greetings and respects on the eve of Passover, which begins Saturday evening.

It would seem that, despite continuing misunderstandings, hands are reaching out from both sides.

The very last generation of witnesses -- and victims -- of the Nazi Holocaust, which ended 63 years ago, will soon be gone.

There isn't that much time left for them to reach out to each other in their efforts to deal with those tears beyond measure, and that shame beyond telling, and try to create a lasting understanding that may prevent it from happening again.

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