Although some have speculated that the successor of Pope John Paul II may devote inordinate attention to the Islamic world and less to Israel and the Jewish people, Jewish leaders who have dealt with the Vatican over the years foresee little change.
"I think history tells us that once in motion, these matters continue in motion, but all of that remains to be seen," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, chairman of the governing board of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which since 1968 has conducted a dialogue with the Vaticanís Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.
"It is a growing church in Africa and China and, of course, everyone is confronting a dialogue with Islam," he said. "So it is not surprising that there would be speculation that the Catholic Church will spend more time looking after the Catholic communities in China and working with Islam. But I am not concerned that the Jewish community will suffer in its relationship with the Church."
Israel Singer, chairman of IJCIC, pointed out that his group brought to New York nearly one-third of the 117 cardinals who will be selecting the next pope from among themselves.
"We met with them and have close relations with them," Singer said. "We hope that the next pope will be as strong and as interested in having good relations with the Jews that [Pope John Paul II] had. We will do everything we can to foster it. Our goal is to build a basis for making this an institutional relationship rather than a personal relationship."
Singer said the Jewish community has enjoyed good relations with the Vatican over the years.
"They saw our issues as theirs and when Jews were in pain, they shared that pain with us in public," he said. "They publicly announced their opposition to anti-Semitism. That is a critical thing that we think should not be taken lightly. And we were together in fighting religious intolerance, and we had joint social programs to fight poverty in Argentina. Our goal is to continue that and to strengthen the advances we have made."
Shmuel Hadas, Israelís first ambassador to the Vatican, said that until diplomatic relations were established between the two in 1994, there was no Vatican cooperation in fighting anti-Semitism and racism.
He said there is reason for concern about the next pope given the new outbreak of anti-Semitism, mainly in Europe.
"But we expect the next pope to continue in the path opened by John Paul II," said Hadas, who served as Vatican envoy into 1997. "Regardless of who will be the successor, John Paul II changed the spirit of the Catholic Church regarding the Jewish people in a way that does not leave his successor an alternative but to follow in his path."
Asked about pending issues in the Church that concern the Jewish community, Hadas said he believes the Church’s efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII would not come to fruition anytime soon despite the efforts of Pope John Paul II to foster it.
"I understand there is a freeze on the issue by the Vatican," he said. "In my opinion it is the result of pressure not only by the Jewish community, but inside the Catholic Church there are people who are also against it."
Some say that Pius XII did not do enough to oppose the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. It is hoped that the Vatican’s archives, another pressing issue, will reveal in detail his actions during the Holocaust.
The opening of the archives is expected to take place soon, albeit to a limited extent.
"They agreed a few months ago to open the archives for the period when Pope Pius XII was then serving as the Vatican’s ambassador, or nuncio, to Germany in the 1930s," Hadas said.According to Hadas, the Vatican said it plans to open its archives for the years covering World War II.The Vatican said it has assigned more people to that project, according to Rabbi Meyers.
"It is a party of our history and Church history that we know must be made public," he said. "It is a question of satisfying the historical record and Church history as well."
Hadas observed that ìchanges in the Vatican are very, very slow. One of the cardinals once told me that the Vatican thinks in terms of eternity. They have time."
Hadas declined to speculate on who the next pope might be, but he noted that 20 of the 117 cardinals under consideration are from Italy. And he said there are those who are looking for a pope from South America, where the majority of Catholics live.
"The Church is a very rational organization," he said. "Maybe there are people who want to go back to the days before the Second Vatican Council [which declared that the Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus]. But I don’t think we will have a pope who could be considered negative towards the Jewish people."