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Visits To and From the Pope

September

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The pope came visiting in September. He made a swing through the Bible Belt--defending the family in South Carolina, attacking porn in Florida, and generally out-hardlining the fundamentalists on their own turf

He also met with the Jews. Two hundred Jewish leaders heard the pope talk--where else but in Miami?--about how the Holocaust was a bad thing that shouldn't happen again, and how he'd do what he could to see that it didn't.

The Jews liked that part. They're reported to have applauded enthusiastically upon hearing that the pontiff didn't want them dead. But if they were hoping for a reassuring word on their other major papal issue, the Waldheim Incident, they were to be disappointed.

You probably remember the Waldheim Incident. It was fairly big news all through the summer and fall, and it's left a bad taste in mouths the world over. It started back in June, when Austrian president Kurt Waldheim visited the pope in Rome and got what the papers called a "laudatory welcome." That he got any kind of welcome at all was something of a shock, inasmuch as Waldheim's been accused of participating in Nazi atrocities against Jews and Yugoslav partisans during World War II.

(Waldheim, of course, offers the classic evasion, saying he had little knowledge and less authority--as if that settled the question of his responsibility, rather than opening it up--while Austrian politicians in general exhibit a bizarre sort of lemming behavior, born of guilt: feeling called upon to defend Waldheim, they inevitably, one by one, make anti-Semitic statements and destroy their careers.)

A great clamor was heard throughout the land. Explanations were demanded, not to mention apologies. How could the pope be so insensitive? How could he--a Pole, no less, with a highly touted opposition to tyranny--entertain a man whose wartime activities had got him banned from visiting even the United States, the country that took in Wernher von Braun?

Naturally enough, the Waldheim Incident revived Jewish mistrust of the Catholic Church. It was recalled that this was, after all, the same bunch who refused to recognize Israel; who maintained a famous silence during the Holocaust (as well as a silence about that silence); and who, Vatican II notwithstanding, couldn't bring themselves to get theologically friendly with the chosen people.

Neither side having any Stinger missiles, the peace was kept. But relations were tense enough to warrant a meeting between Jewish and Catholic leaders. Nine of each took part in a day-long session near Rome, on Monday, August 31. Their lunch, as Peter Slevin reported in the Tribune, consisted of "a kosher meal from plates stamped with a cross."

It was considered a successful meeting; and was followed, on September 1, by an audience with the pope himself, also successful. The pope expressed a desire "to bridge the historical divide between Catholics and Jews." And as for the Waldheim affair, the two sides, said Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, "agreed to disagree agreeably."

The whole encounter had a peculiarly medieval aura to it. I mean , a delegation of distinguished Jews come to press the interests of their people before the Holy Father--presenting their suit to him, offering him praise, and expressing their appreciation for his tolerance. It all seemed so 12th century. So redolent of a time before the emergence of things like nationalism, Protestantism, and the Napoleonic Code, when popes were kingmakers and the Jews were a sort of pancommunal entity, a tribe, living within and yet transcending the borders of this or that state. I pictured the participants wearing caftans, doublets, and hose.

And my picture wasn't all that fanciful, really. The Church is old; the Jews are old; their awful, mutual history's old. Even Waldheim's old. In away, his alleged crimes have long precedent; only his bland denials seem peculiarly modern.

There's a great age, a vast and ugly ancientness behind most of our religious patterns. You can see it plainly in the case of Lisa Steinberg, the little girl from New York who was murdered recently by her adoptive father. The fact that the father is Jewish, while the natural mother is Catholic, has given the crime a strange spin. News stories tell of Catholic ladies gathering at the site of the murder and praying the rosary for Lisa, as if to reclaim her soul. Reading those stories, I sensed an unspoken, unconscious, almost instinctual reference to the old blood-libel charge: the charge that Jews kill Christian children in order to make ritual use of their blood. The ladies had that charge in their hearts, somewhere. But then, why should that be surprising? The last blood-libel trial took place only 75 years ago. A vast and ugly ancientness.

I like the pope, I truly do. I saw him in Grant Park when he visited Chicago a few years back, and got a distinct rush--either from his spiritual presence, or the excitement of the crowd, or the grandeur of his role. It was a surge and a happiness, not unlike what I'd felt once when I happened to stand near A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishnas. Say what you want about his pigtailed followers, but the swami radiated a joy that was palpable. And catching: I was chanting "Hare Krishna" to myself the whole rest of the day. Odd for a Jewish boy, I suppose. Still, some things are vast and ancient and not the least bit ugly--and the patterns for those lovely things must be in us, too, whoever we are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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