The Vatican recently announced that Pope Benedict XVI will squeeze into his bulging New York schedule a visit to a prominent synagogue on Park Avenue. What do Jews want from him? Why will the visit take place? A pope would seem to be as out of place in a synagogue as Jews are in Catholic heaven.

It turns out that Benedict's entrance to the sacred space on Park Avenue will mark only the third papal visit to a synagogue in modern history. It was John Paul II (d. 2005) who made the other visits (John XXIII, "the good pope," as he is called by Italians, was driven to the synagogue of Rome in the early 1960s but never actually entered it). Praised by some Jewish leaders for his repeated efforts to repair Jewish-Catholic relations and for various apologies to the international Jewish community (most notably in 2000), John Paul II can be said to have paved the way to Benedict's synagogue visit next week.

The Jews in the Park Avenue synagogue will surely not pester the pontiff with questions about why the papal states forced Jews to live in ghettos for centuries, why the Vatican declared Edith Stein a saint against the wishes of the international Jewish community, or the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII ("Hitler's Pope," as the English journalist John Cornwell has perhaps unfairly called him). The Jews on Park Avenue may be thinking about the sad history of Catholic anti-Semitism, but they will not speak about it in plain terms. Instead, the New Yorkers in that synagogue will reflect on the curious atonement of their would-be Catholic friends.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) transformed contemporary Catholicism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the current pope and his well-informed flock are still sorting through the considerable changes wrought by that historic "aggiornomento" (updating). The council document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time, 1965) strictly forbids violence toward or hatred of Jews. No Catholic may call a Jew "Christ-killer." That document was published / released a year after Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1964). Nostra Aetate deepens the ecumenical message of Lumen Gentium, perhaps the most frequently cited document of Vatican II. According to Lumen Gentium:

those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Romans 9:4-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear from the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Romans 11:29-29).

Referring not explicitly to Jews, Lumen Gentium states:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may achieve eternal salvation.

I believe it is possible to read Lumen Gentium in such a way as to conclude that the Vatican was opening itself to the possibility that Jews could get to heaven too -- not by converting to Catholicism, as they Church had long insisted, but simply by being good Jews.

Opening up Catholic heaven to pious Jews should strike even hardened cynics as a remarkably generous gesture, one that indicates the extent to which the Catholic Church is willing to reach in order to atone for the past. Anyone who wonders why on earth Jews would care to be admitted to a place in which they patently do not believe (that is, Catholic heaven) will have a hard time understanding why the synagogue on Park Avenue waits with some enthusiasm to welcome Benedict to their holy space.

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