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VATICAN LETTER Jun-30-2006 (810 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Do not forget: Book aims to dispel unease after pope's Birkenau talk

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Amid lingering questions and even disappointment about Pope Benedict XVI's remarks at the Nazis' Birkenau death camp, the Vatican has published a book that attempts to place the speech in a wider context.

The book, "Rouse Yourself! Do Not Forget Mankind, Your Creature," was released in Italian June 27, and an English edition is being prepared.

The title is a line from the German-born pope's May 28 speech at the death camp in Poland, a speech that focused on the theological question of where was God when the Nazis were exterminating 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other innocent people.

While both Christian and Jewish scholars acknowledged the theological importance of the question, many of them expressed surprise and even criticism that the pope did not focus more on the question: Where were the Christians -- particularly German Catholics -- and other people of good will?

In addition, some were puzzled that the pope did not use the occasion to condemn anti-Semitism.

The new book attempted to respond to the criticism by presenting the text of the pope's speech in the context of other papal and Vatican statements about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Catholic-Jewish relations.

Msgr. Gianfranco Ravasi, the biblical scholar asked by the Vatican to write the book's introduction, said the little tome "will help people see that Catholic-Jewish relations have not just begun at this moment, that the Holy Father's speech is part of a history of efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations."

To make the point, the book also included Pope Benedict's remarks about the Birkenau visit from his May 31 weekly general audience; Pope John Paul II's message for the 2005 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau; the December 2000 article by Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for the Vatican newspaper on the unique and important relationship between Jews and Christians; "We Remember," a document on the Holocaust by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews; Pope John Paul's 1979 remarks at Birkenau; and the chapter on relations with the Jews from the Second Vatican Council's document, "Nostra Aetate."

Rabbi Michael A. Signer, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told Catholic News Service he agrees with many of the concerns expressed about Pope Benedict's speech at Birkenau, particularly his focus on theological questions to the exclusion of pastoral questions regarding Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.

In an interview with the Polish Catholic newspaper, Tygodnik Powszechny, Rabbi Signer said that prior to his election Pope Benedict was consistent and strong in condemning anti-Semitism as "a sin and a crime against God."

"I was disappointed that he did not choose the moment of his speech in the former death camp to emphasize this point," the rabbi said.

In addition, he said, "if the anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz caused many Christians to sin, then every occasion to confess that sin should be utilized."

Msgr. Ravasi, prefect of the Milan Archdiocese's Ambrosian Library, said the Catholic Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism has been clear for years, so Pope Benedict felt comfortable moving to the pastorally deeper level of calling Catholics to value, respect and love Judaism.

One of the most positive areas of Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the past 40 years, he said, is that "Christians increasingly recognize that the foundation of their faith is Jewish, that Judaism is not simply another faith, but that it is the root of our faith."

By putting the pope's Birkenau speech into the context of previous papal and Vatican statements, he said, the visit had three important elements:

-- "On a human, psychological level, bringing the Shoah (Holocaust) back into people's consciences" and using Auschwitz as a reminder not only of what the Germans did to the Jews, but of the possible depths of human evil everywhere.

-- On a theological level, urging people to consider the question of where is God when evil occurs and what it means to believe that God gave people freedom to obey him and love one another or to disobey and destroy each other.

-- On a pastoral level, demonstrating that the church's task is not limited to fighting anti-Semitism, but includes "helping Christians go further to know and love their Jewish roots."

Msgr. Ravasi told CNS June 28 that asking why the pope focused on God's silence during the Holocaust rather than on "the immoral silence of too many human beings" is a legitimate question, but he thinks the pope did deal with the issue.

"The God he is crying out to is the God who can help men and women act differently," the God who created every human being in his image and likeness and who commands them to love one another, the monsignor said.


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