Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday that he is planning to retire on February 28th, the first time a sitting pope will have stepped aside since the 14th century, has elicited reaction from several Jewish leaders around the world.
Monday, Israeli chief rabbi Yona Metzger praised his inter-religious outreach and current relations between Israel and the Vatican.
“During his period (as pope) there were the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue,” a spokesman quoted Metzger as saying after the pope announced he would resign. “I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also responded to Monday’s announcement, praising the pope’s character and recalling a meeting they had in 2011.
“I was honored to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Britain on behalf of non-Christian faiths in 2010 and spend time with him during a visit to the Vatican in 2011,” he said.
“I saw him to be a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm, a deeply thoughtful and compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom. I wish him good health, blessings and best wishes for the future,” Rabbi Sacks added.
Despite the praise, Pope Benedict’s reign was not without its controversies. Having served in the Hitler Youth as a boy, the pope’s wartime actions were a source of tension. His continued support for Pope Pius XII, who held the position during the Holocaust, as well as his unwillingness to condemn the Catholic Church’s actions during the Second World War, didn’t help matters either.
In 2009, while on a visit to Israel, the pope refused to enter Yad Vashem because of its negative portrayal of Pope Pius XII. The trip was otherwise viewed as a success, with the World Jewish Congress praising it as a major step forward in relations between Judaism and Christianity.
But the Pope will be remembered more for his attempts to bridge the divide between Christianity and Judaism than anything else. In a book published in 2011, he exonerated the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, a doctrine that has been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews. While the Vatican had for five decades taught that Jews weren’t collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff was significant and would help fight anti-Semitism.
On Monday World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder issued a statement expressing his admiration for the pope’s efforts to improve relations with the Jewish community: “It is with great emotion that we learned today that Pope Benedict XVI will retire at the end of this month. His decision deserves our greatest respect.”
“The papacy of Benedict XVI elevated Catholic-Jewish relations onto an unprecedented level. Not only did he maintain the achievements of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and give the relationship solid theological underpinning but, more importantly, he filled it with meaning and with life,” the statement read.