Pope Francis pays respects by the death wall in the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, on July 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/David W Cerny

What Pope Francis' visit to Auschwitz means to the Jews

JERUSALEM (RNS) There are three major stations on the papal itinerary of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation today. Initiated by St. John Paul II, followed by Pope Benedict XVI and now confirmed by Pope Francis, they are the Great Synagogue in Rome, the state of Israel and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

The visit to the first acknowledges the special religious bonds that connect the church to the Jewish people. Visiting Israel reflects the church’s recognition of the focal point of contemporary Jewish life.

But the full significance of both can only be truly appreciated in the shadow of Auschwitz.

For it is the memory of past hostility toward the Jews and of Jewish vulnerability that enables us to appreciate the significance both of the remarkable Catholic-Jewish reconciliation of the last 50 years and of renewed independent Jewish national sovereignty.

It was a great privilege to be present when Francis paid his impressive silent homage to the victims of the Shoah at Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this place that bore witness to the most systematic, industrialized atrocity in the history of humanity, words are inadequate and silence becomes the ultimate expression of solidarity with the victims.

To fully appreciate his silence, one must also take note of things Francis has written and said aloud.

In the book he wrote with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, “On Heaven and Earth,” he asserted the uniqueness of the Shoah as the systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish people’s existence as a whole.

And in keeping with his predecessors, he also declared it is impossible for a true Christian to be an anti-Semite. The fact that this statement might be obvious to most Christians today is itself a testimony to the dramatic positive transformation in Catholic-Jewish relations in our times.

But up until 50 years ago, Jews were widely presented in the Christian world as rejected and cursed by God -- an approach that demonized and even dehumanized the Jew.

It was precisely under the impact of the Shoah that the Second Vatican Council convened by St. John XXIII proclaimed “Nostra Aetate,” the historic document that rejected this approach and ushered in a new era of positive teaching regarding Jews and Judaism.

Accordingly, Francis stated in his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" that “the friendship which has grown between us (Christians and Jews) makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions … especially those that have involved Christians.”

As a leading Catholic clergyman said to me as we left Birkenau, “Who knows how different it might have been had Nostra Aetate been issued 30 years earlier."

Not only has Francis reaffirmed his predecessors’ description of anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and man,” he also stated that anti-Zionism that denies the right of national independence to the Jewish people is precisely part of that anti-Semitism.

As the third pope to visit these sites, Francis has very much enshrined them in papal itineraries for the future, ensuring that the Christian-Jewish reconciliation will always be part and parcel of the “papal agenda.”

Still, Catholicism and Judaism are two significantly different religions. We also have different collective memories and interpretations of them. This is especially the case in relation to the Shoah and the role of the Holy See during that tragic period.

Jewish organizations, including my own, have been calling on the Vatican for decades to open the Vatican Secret Archives for transparent scholarly review. This is important in itself. However, in the end, no matter how much analysis and review there may be, the differences between the church and the Jewish people are likely to remain.

For while a pope is not just another temporal leader for the Catholic faithful, the vast majority of Jews will not consider any interpretation or justification to be adequate in the face of the atrocity of the Shoah.

It is time for us to understand this and to respectfully agree to disagree. It is time not only to respect each other’s differences and symbols, but also to accept that we have different memories and interpretations.

Of course the lessons of the Shoah must never be forgotten. But at the same time it is precisely in the shadow of the Shoah that we can appreciate how far Catholics and Jews have come and where we are today.

Regardless of whether Francis opens up the archives, he is the personification of the blessed transformation in Catholic-Jewish relations in our time and it was precisely his silence in Auschwitz-Birkenau that highlighted this for the entire world to see.

(Rabbi David Rosen is the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs. He accompanied the pope on his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in July)