The Pope reaches out to the Jewish Community

October 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pope Francis made several overtures to the Jewish community this week, sending an email to the son of two Holocaust survivors to laud him on a lecture discussing faith and the Holocaust, and refusing to grant a former Nazi war criminal a funeral mass. Kim Lawton from PBS's Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since being elected seven months ago, Pope Francis has made a number of overtures to the Jewish community, including one very public gesture this week. For more, we’re joined by Kim Lawton. She is a managing editor and correspondent for the public television program, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly“, so Kim, this week the Pope prohibited any Catholic church in Rome from performing the funeral mass of a convicted war criminal, Nazi war criminal that died, why is this so significant?

KIM LAWTON: Well it’s just another indication of the vast improvement of relations between the Catholic church and the Jewish community, there’ve been lots of tensions over the Holocaust, what church leaders did or did not do to help Jews during the Holocaust and in the past twenty years popes have really tried to address that issue and this is just one more incident that shows that the Catholic church really has taken a new turn in its relationship with the Jewish community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And just last month he met with the president of the World Jewish Council, I think it’s Ronald Lauder and in a quote, Mr. Lauder said, “In the past two thousand years ties between the Catholic church and Jews have never been this good.” This is something that the popes have been working on since Vatican Two in the sixties, but this new pope seems to really put his money where his mouth is.

KIM LAWTON: Well Jewish leaders were really pleased when Francis was elected this spring, he had a good relationship with Jews in Argentina and so they were very optimistic and he has really lived up to their hopes, he has reached out several times to the Jewish community, many Jewish people really like his emphasis on social justice and his simple lifestyle really appeals to many of them so, it has been a really positive relationship, and as you say, it’s been part of an ongoing improvement of relations, you know, for a long time, centuries, millennia, many Catholics, the church has blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and in Vatican two in 1965, the church very much denounced anti-Semitism and said all Jews should not be blamed for the death of Jesus and since that time, popes have really tried to live that out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas met with the Pope this week, reinviting him to Israel, there is a plan for the Pope possibly to go to Israel in the early part of next year, you’ve been with the previous two popes on their trips, what can we expect from this one?

KIM LAWTON: Well visiting Israel really has become required travel for a modern pope, I was fortunate to be with John Paul the Second in 2000 when he went to Israel, I was part of the press that covered that, and that was a huge landmark occasion, he was the first pope to make an official visit to Israel. Pope Paul the Sixth had made a quick trip to Jerusalem in the 1960s for a few hours but this was the first formal visit and it was hugely symbolic you know, to see a pope standing in front of the Western Wall, putting a prayer in the crevices there, very emotional images. Seeing him at the Holocaust museum, Yad Veshem, again, praying, asking for forgiveness for what church, Catholics, and the church itself had done to Jews over the previous centuries. Very powerful images, I think it sent a very powerful message to both Jews and Catholics alike. Benedict also visited Israel, so this is just part of that symbolism, showing that relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kim Lawton, from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, thanks so much.

KIM LAWTON: Thank you.