Much can be learned of Holocaust sensibilities

By  Brian Finamore, Catholic Register Special
  • December 18, 2009
{mosimage}No Going Back: Letters to Pope Benedict XVI on the Holocaust , Jewish-Christian Relations and Israel, Edited by Carol Rittner and Stephen D. Smith (Quill Press, softcover, 180 pages, $20).

When Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem and Palestine in 2000 he made a powerful and lasting impression. Prior to his visit and throughout his pontificate, the Catholic Church had done much to nurture and follow the spirit of Vatican II. Many Jews thought they had a friend in John Paul II and relations between the two faiths were warming.

The world has certainly changed since 2000. The events of 9/11, the rise of militant Islam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened and sobered spirits around the world. The Middle East is a dangerous place. The situation in Gaza and Lebanon is tense. There is a massive wall throughout much of Israel that separates Palestinians and Jews. All that did not exist when John Paul II visited Jerusalem.     

{sa 0955500923}It is hard not to admire Pope Benedict’s bravery. At a time in life when many of his generation, those still alive, are enjoying the fruits of their labour in retirement, Benedict is trying to shepherd the Catholic Church through the complicated and tricky waters of a new century, succeeding one of the most prolific popes in history. In many ways it is akin to walking through a mine field. 

Published in May 2009, on the eve of the Pope’s visit to Israel and Palestine, No Going Back is an interesting and informative primer on the current, sensitive state of Catholic-Jewish relations. It points out how carefully Benedict must walk through the Middle East. 

Several historians, educators, religious and Holocaust survivors from around the world were asked by editors Carol Rittner and Stephen D. Smith to submit a letter or essay with the following question in mind: “What would you say or ask the Pope if you had five minutes with him prior to his visit to the Middle East in May 2009?”  The editors also asked each writer to include two or three discussion questions that might help readers explicate the points their letter was trying to make. Thirty-six people responded to the request and these responses form the nucleus of the book.

The letters are short and for the most part straight to the point. Remember, they only had five minutes with the Pope! The editors have solid backgrounds in Holocaust and genocide education. They did an amazing job collecting these letters in a little more than five weeks.

Many of the essays and letters remind us how traumatic the Holocaust was to Jewish people. It is in the spiritual DNA of Jews to remember the past. Just as they remember and celebrate God’s saving actions in their history, Jews will never forget the pain and the horror of the Shoah. It is a part of everyday Jewish discourse.

While some brave people did assist the Jews during the Holocaust, most did little, if anything. We must admit that Christians could and should have done more to stop the slaughter. It is hard for us Christians to understand the outrage and pain caused by comments made by Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X and others who deny the Holocaust. These comments cannot be brushed aside. They open tender and very deep wounds. They must be challenged and addressed. 

Likewise, the ongoing movement within the Catholic Church to canonize Pius XII and the changes to the “Good Friday Prayer for the Jews” made by Benedict XVI have caused concern. 

No Going Back exposes some of the anxiety that exists among those working on interfaith dialogue. Some of the letter writers seem fearful that the church might be losing some of the momentum and promise of Vatican II.

Overall the book is hopeful. The letter written by Yousef Sahoury asking Pope Benedict XVI to visit Muqeibleh in Israel to see the Catholic church built by the local Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities offers a powerful glimpse of hope in a dangerous land. There is much goodwill towards Benedict. He is held in very high regard by all the contributors. They want him to be clear and direct.  All of them — Jews, Muslims and Christians — recognize the importance of the Pope and look to him for leadership. 

No Going Back would make a good resource for high school and postsecondary teachers, or anyone interested in current Catholic-Jewish issues. The essays and letters are written in a very personal way. They are easy to read and a few opinions can be thought provoking and challenging. The discussion questions included with each entry help the reader to personalize the text, bring it to life. 

The letters written by Holocaust survivors Hedi Fried, Dr. Shlomo Breznitz, Dr. Emanuel Tanay and Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad, the only Muslim author, were interesting. Tanay’s suggestion that an official day be set aside in which the Catholic Church demonstrates her commitment to repentance for her role in the genocide of the Jews is a bold suggestion. No Going Back is a useful book. Ongoing dialogue, education and prayer will help all People of the Book, all descendants of Abraham move forward in trust, reconciliation, tolerance and hope.

(Finamore is a high school chaplain in Mississauga, Ont.)

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