VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In one of his first acts as pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to Rome's chief rabbi expressing his intent to further dialogue with the Jewish community.
"I trust in the help of the highest to continue dialogue and strengthen collaboration with the sons and daughters of the Jewish people," the pope told Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni in his message, sent April 21.
The note followed an April 20 telegram from the rabbi congratulating the pope on his election.
Welcoming the cardinals' choice of Pope Benedict, Jewish leaders said they expected him to renew his predecessor's commitment to advancing Catholic-Jewish relations and hoped he would reaffirm the Church's teaching on Judaism even more forcefully.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav, the Anti-Defamation League and the European Jewish Congress all released congratulatory statements following the April 19 election, encouraging the new pontiff to follow Pope John Paul II's path of dialogue and reconciliation.
Based on personal encounters with Pope Benedict, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, said the pontiff "understands the bond between us, the common roots, and we are looking forward to working with him."
In late 2003, Ben-Hur asked then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger if the abridged "Catechism of the Catholic Church," expected in late 2005, could include an entire page on "Nostra Aetate," the 1965 Second Vatican Council declaration that reshaped Catholic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.
"He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I will do it,'" Ben-Hur told Catholic News Service April 20.
The major challenge facing Catholic-Jewish relations remains spreading Pope John Paul's teachings to the faithful, said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's head of interfaith relations.
"There are a lot of sections of the Catholic Church, especially places where there is no living Jewish community, like parts of Latin America, where preconciliar attitudes still prevail," he said.
"What I would like to see is a continued commitment that seeks the active implementation of the new theology into a grass-roots education," Rabbi Rosen said.
Rabbi Michael A. Signer, director of the Holocaust Project at the University of Notre Dame and a guest professor this semester at Rome's Gregorian University, told CNS he hopes Pope Benedict will encourage more education on the Church's relationship to Judaism.
While Pope John Paul developed a more positive teaching regarding Judaism, Rabbi Signer said he wanted "some reinforcement in terms of the Congregation for Catholic Education that the teaching of 'Nostra Aetate' and interreligious dialogue is integral to the education of those who catechize the Church."
"The ingredients of a deeper understanding and positive teaching about Judaism are all present in Benedict XVI's writings," said Rabbi Signer, who uses one of the new pope's books in his class at Gregorian University.
"The question will be how will he embody them and teach them in his new office," he said.
In the political realm, Pope Benedict's keynote address at a 1994 religious conference in Jerusalem showed his support of the relationship between the Vatican and Israel, Rabbi Rosen said.
A member of the negotiating team that established diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See in 1993, the rabbi said the future pope called the history of Catholic-Jewish relations "full of blood and tears" and referred to the "shadow of Auschwitz," which the rabbi said were "factors that must serve as an imperative to the Catholic Church to change its relationship with the Jewish people."
One worrisome issue on the horizon for the Jewish community is the possible beatification of Pope Pius XII, whom some critics believe could have done more to save Jews during the Holocaust.
"That would certainly have a souring effect on Catholic-Jewish relations," Rabbi Rosen said.
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Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.
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