ROME -- Roman Catholic bishops from both sides of the former Iron Curtain began a European synod yesterday with an unexpected acknowledgment of Judaism's contribution to the continent's development.
The synod opened with a Mass in the Basilica of St. Peter at which Pope John Paul II urged the 136 bishops to find ways to restore what the church calls Europe's Christian roots after the fall of communism.
"May this synod gather all the needs to then give an answer that will move souls toward a new evangelization of Europe in this decisive historical moment," he said.
The church's frequent depiction of Europe as a singularly Christian region has irked some Jewish groups.
Apparently to offset that criticism, a keynote speech by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the moderator of the synod, repeated the pope's own description of Jews as Christianity's "big brothers."
Jewish faith and culture, Cardinal Ruini said, "represent a key element in the development of our culture." And the Holocaust, he continued, was "a gigantic crime which was an expression of the perversion of European humanism."
The unexpected comments seemed to reflect a desire by the Roman Catholic Church to avoid the impression that it is seeking a monopoly of souls as Europe's political divisions tumble. Already, the Russian Orthodox Church had turned down an invitation to send observers to the synod, accusing Rome of seeking converts in the Orthodox regions of Eastern Europe. The boycott has embarrassed the Vatican.
Pope John Paul called the synod, which has taken more than a year to prepare, to seek a revitalization of Christianity in Europe, hoping that the Catholic Church in the former East bloc will be strengthened without infection by what the church calls the virus of Western Europe's increasing lack of spirituality.
In practical terms, the synod is supposed to work out how the Catholic Church in some parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union can physically rebuild churches and seminaries confiscated or closed down during decades of Communist rule.