An unprecedented closed-door meeting between Pope John Paul II and nine Jewish leaders yesterday broke a three-month chill in Roman Catholic-Jewish relations. One key result is that Jews will not boycott a meeting with the Pope in Miami on Sept. 11 at the start of his tour of the United States.
``In a real sense, this is an answer to the Waldheim meeting,'' said Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, president of the Synagogue Council of America. He was referring to the June meeting between the Pope and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim that angered the Jewish community because of Dr. Waldheim's alleged participation in Nazi war crimes.
Yesterday's meeting had three main results:
The Catholic Church will prepare (with comments from Jewish leaders before final publication) an official church document on the Holocaust.
The Vatican agreed to make important organizational changes in the way it handles dialogue with Judaism, in particular, allowing closer contacts than ever before between Jews and Vatican diplomatic officials.
The Vatican agreed to give further consideration to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
In a press conference, Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said the Jewish leaders hoped the changes would prevent ``mistakes'' like the papal reception of Waldheim in the future. The Vatican said it had good reasons for receiving Waldheim.
``From the perspective of the relation of Catholics and Jews in the last 20 years, today's meeting with the Pope is very important,'' said Rabbi Waxman.
The meeting was unusual for the rapidity with which it was organized and for the length of time the Jewish representatives - seven from the US, one from Switzerland and one from Israel - spent with the Pope.
Catholic bishops in the US, acting as intermediaries in the interest of improved Jewish-Catholic relations, pressed the Vatican to grant this meeting before the Pope's scheduled Sept. 10 departure for his 10-day trip to the US, according to Vatican sources.
The meeting was closed to the press, but press representatives were present before and after the meeting. It was reported that the Pope and his visitors - a group of rabbis, a cardinal, and several priests - sat in a semicircle of chairs in front of a table with an open Bible.
After the gathering, Jewish representatives said they were pleased by the openness of the Pope and moved by a reference he made to the effects of the Holocaust on a village in his native Poland.
A joint declaration following yesterday's meeting stressed the commitment of the church to dialogue and included a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism.
Thus, the stage seems set for Jewish-Catholic relations to return to a more cordial tone following three months of a pronounced chill. The unprecedented nature of the Pope's reception suggests how far the Vatican and this Pope are willing to go to mend relations with the Jews.
It also suggests how profoundly threatened those relations were by the Waldheim visit.
The Waldheim visit came as a particular blow because this Pope is generally credited with doing more than any of his predecessors to improve ties with Jews. One of his most dramatic gestures was a visit to the Jewish Synagogue of Rome in April 1986 - the first visit by a Pope to a synagogue since ancient times.
At the meeting, there reportedly was a free discussion of issues ranging from the Vatican's continued refusal to recognize the state of Israel to the consequences of anti-Semitism, with a call for renewed efforts by Catholics to confront and reject all vestiges of the anti-Semitism which has marked the church's 2,000-year history.
But a number of important issues in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, including the Vatican's continued refusal to grant full diplomatic recognition to Israel, continue to preoccupy leaders of both faiths.
Yesterday's meeting with the Pope was preceded by a day-long preparatory session in Rome on Monday. The nine Jewish leaders met with nine Catholic representatives at the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the Vatican office responsible for Catholic theological and religious discussions with Judaism.
The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews is not responsible for issues of a diplomatic nature, like the question of full Vatican recognition of Israel. Diplomatic issues are handled by the Vatican's Secretariat of State. Significantly, the Vatican official from the Secretariat charged with following the development of political events in the Middle East, Msgr. Luigi Gatti, was present at the day-long encounter. The other eight Catholic representatives were all officials engaged in the religious dialogue with the Jews.
In a joint statement worked out during the course of the Monday's session and refined during a morning session yesterday with Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican's Secretary of State, the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to dialogue within a context of profound mutual respect.
The Waldheim visit was itself only part of a larger concern among many Jews about signs of rising anti-Semitism in many parts of the world.
Some Catholics have noted this phenomenon as well. An article in the English edition of the Vatican's official newspaper, the Osservatore Romano, in early August noted that the Vatican was ``alerted to the danger of the appearance even in Europe of new forms of anti-Semitism, racism, fanaticism, and reactionary nationalism.''