Divided opinion on beatification of 2 popes

Pius IX is criticized as anti-Semitic, while John XXIII is admired

September 03, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

When Pope John Paul II beatifies two of his papal predecessors today in Rome, setting the stage for Pius IX and John XXIII to be canonized, the memory of a 6-year-old boy torn from his mother and father will hang heavy over the ceremony.

On a summer night 142 years ago, a Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptized by his family's Catholic maid, was spirited from his parents by papal guards and brought to the Vatican, where Pius IX adopted him. He was raised a Catholic and later became a priest.

The incident has not been forgotten by the Jews of Rome, where descendants of Mortara's family still live, nor by Jewish organizations worldwide, which have raised a chorus of protest to honoring a pope they consider anti-Semitic.

While the church has defended him as a friend to Jews, a coalition of the world's most prominent Jewish groups - including B'nai B'rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress and representatives of the three major religious branches of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Judaism - has strongly denounced Pius IX's beatification to the Vatican.

"Pius IX has been hailed by Vatican officials who are pressing for his sainthood as `a model of Christian life,'" wrote Seymour D. Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the umbrella group, in the Vatican letter. "But he is the pope who perpetuated centuries-old contempt and hatred of Jews, referring to them as `dogs' and declaring that `of these dogs, there are too many of them present in Rome.'"

The Vatican denies that Pius IX, who was commonly known as "Pio Nono," was anti-Semitic. An article published in the Aug. 26 edition of L'Osservatore Roman, the Vatican's official newspaper, said that Pius IX ordered the gates of Rome's Jewish ghetto taken down and stopped the annual practice of forcing Jewish leaders to march in a humiliating procession during Carnival before Lent. It also noted that "More than once he called [Jews] his children," according to a translation by the Catholic News Service.

However, the pope re-established the ghetto and stripped Jews of property rights after a nationalist uprising forced him to flee Rome temporarily.

More than 300 Jews and reformist Catholics protested in Rome yesterday against the beatification. Elsewhere in the city, a group of Catholic traditionalists held a much smaller gathering in favor, arguing that Pius IX did much to strengthen the papacy.

The beatification today - Europe's Day of Jewish Culture, when communities in 16 countries celebrate their history and traditions - stands in stark contrast to the strides the Vatican has made in recent years in vastly improving relations between Jews and the world's largest Christian denomination. That relationship took a leap forward through the actions of the other pope who will be elevated, John XXIII, who was pope from 1958 to 1963.

John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which, in its document "Nostra Aetate", rejected blaming Jews for Jesus' death, condemned anti-Semitism, called the Jewish Covenant with God "eternal and unbroken" and affirmed the Jewish roots of Christianity.

That John Paul II, who has significantly spurred Jewish-Christian relations during his papacy - visiting a synagogue in Rome, praying this year for repentance for Christian sins against Jews and making a historic trip to Israel - would approve Pius IX's beatification at the same time as John XXIII's mystifies Jewish leaders. Beatification is the second step in elevating a person to sainthood.

Jews admire John XXIII for his role in Vatican II and for his actions during World War II, when as papal envoy to Turkey he saved thousands of Jews' lives by helping arrange escapes to Palestine.

"Obviously, the beatification is going to go ahead," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee. "But it takes away for many in the Jewish community the joy of John XXIII being beatified, who is very popular and beloved by Jews who know his story both before he became pope and afterward. It's a mystery that they're yoked."

Close observers of the Vatican say there's nothing mysterious about it. John XXIII is beloved by church liberals, they say, and Rome needed a conservative counterweight to offset his beatification. There were originally plans to beatify Pius XII, whose papacy spanned World War II, but the criticism of the wartime pope, who failed to decisively denounce the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, caused him to be set aside.

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