Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley met yesterday afternoon with about 20 Jewish community leaders in Boston to discuss concerns over the Vatican's decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, the traditionalist prelate who denies that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews during World War II. I have a story about the meeting in today's paper here.
I spoke to the cardinal by phone after the meeting; here's what he had to say:
Q: What happened at the meeting?
A: I think it was a very positive meeting. Stuart Rossman, the president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, organized us, and we had the opportunity to listen to two Holocaust survivors, Israel Arbeiter and Stephan Ross, who shared with us, in very moving terms, their firsthand experience of the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an opportunity, for myself and other members of the Catholic community there, to assure the leadership that was present that the Catholic Church repudiates this denial of the Holocaust, and to restate that we see the Holocaust as the worst crime in the history of humanity. We were happy to hear it stated, once again, the wonderful relationship that we’ve had historically between our two communities here in Boston.
I announced that we will be hosting a Holocaust memorial service around the transfer of the menorah from the old chancery to our new pastoral center, and immediately Stuart Rossman and others volunteered to participate with us. We also mentioned that we’re very hopeful that the Holy Father’s visit to Israel will be a wonderful occasion for him to be able to clarify before the world the church’s strong feelings about the Holocaust, and our special friendship with the Jewish community. I also mentioned to them that on Thursday I will be going to Washington for a memorial service for my friend Rabbi Leon Klenicki, hosted by the ADL and the Pope John Paul II Center, and after the memorial service I’ve been invited to a working lunch with leaders from the ADL and other Jewish organizations and the Bishops’ Conference to discuss ways, moving forward, to improve communications between our communities.
Q: How will the controversy affect the Vatican’s outreach to the Society of St. Pius X?
A: I think it’s important for us to clarify that the church’s commitment to Nostra Aetate and the teachings of Vatican Council are something that are not negotiable, and that we are committed to working to eradicate anti-Semitism, and to further our close relationship with the Jewish community.
Q: Do you think the upset among Jewish community leaders is justifiable?
A: It was very interesting, listening to one of the participants, who talked about the heightened Jewish insecurity in the world, in light of renewed anti-Semitism, and violence against Jews, and the situation in Venezuela, and how some people are using the financial crisis and blaming Jews for that. He said, ‘I want to contextualize for you, why there is such upset, in light of all of these other things that are going on.’ He made a very eloquent case, I thought, to help understand. And also, Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz also talked about the emotional response in the face of the Holocaust denials, and I think we appreciate that.
Q: Has the lifting of the excommunication damaged Catholic-Jewish relations locally?
A: I think that the relationship remains very strong, and it’s something that we all value and all want to work to safeguard.
Q: Did you apologize for the pope, or defend his decision?
A: I said the Holy Father lifted this excommunication unaware of the statements that Bishop Williamson had made, and that his intention was to try and begin a dialogue that might lead to reconciliation with this group. The alternative is that this group is going to evolve farther and farther away from the Catholic church and probably embrace more and more an anti-Semitic agenda. I think some of the leadership that is there does exhibit some very disturbing theories, and some of these things have been exhibited on the web sites. I sincerely believe that many of the Catholics who have gravitated towards this movement have done so because of nostalgia, and a desire to participate in the old Mass, but in some of their leadership there’s a broader agenda that’s very poisonous, so it’s in everyone’s interest for the Holy Father to be successful.
Q: Do the reconciliation talks now change to reflect these concerns?
A: That’s been part of the discussions from the beginning. Certainly the liturgical concerns are, I think, the easiest ones to resolve. The theological ones are the most difficult, particularly with the leadership. I think with the rank and file, the theological problems have not yet reached them. But if they’re not resolved, I think this group will grow farther and farther away.
Q: Are there any talks locally with the Society of St. Pius X?
A: In the United States, the presence of the St. Pius X Society is small, so it really is in Europe where these kinds of conversations are.
Q: Regarding the menorah that you plan to move to Braintree, was that already in the works?
A: We’ve been talking about it, but this galvanized us into action, realizing the emotional impact of this situation on people. A symbol and a gesture might be very reassuring for people, and this is a good time to do it. We were pleased the Jewish leadership has received this enthusiastically.
(Photo, by John Bohn of the Globe staff, shows Cardinal O'Malley in Roxbury on Feb. 15, 2009.)