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Pope visits Holocaust memorial

Benedict begins an Austrian tour speaking of repentance and meeting with Jewish leaders.

September 08, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — Pope Benedict XVI stood silently Friday before a large stone monument to Austrian Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, offering a gesture of what he described as "sadness" and "repentance."

The visit was a significant start to a three-day pilgrimage to Austria to lend succor to a Roman Catholic Church still troubled by sexual abuse scandals, plummeting membership and sapped influence.

"An Austria without a vibrant Christian faith would no longer be Austria," the pope said at an evening gathering of diplomats and international officials at Vienna's majestic Hofburg palace.

The visit to Austria allows the pope to emphasize some of his favorite themes, including what he sees as Europe's essential Christian identity, particularly as it is undermined by secularism and growing Muslim populations. One demographer last week predicted that at current dropout and birth rates, Catholics may represent only 50% of Austria's population by 2051 (down from 74% in 2001), while Muslims could come to constitute 30% of the population.

"Europe cannot and must not deny her Christian roots," Benedict said. "Christianity has profoundly shaped this continent."

But as he did last year in Poland and his native Germany, the pope, who grew up during World War II and served briefly in Hitler's army, has had to confront the legacy of the Holocaust and the often problematic relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Judaism.

Shortly after arriving, Benedict stopped at the memorial in Judenplatz, or Jews' Square. The appearance was brief and drenched in rain. The pontiff meditated alongside Austria's chief rabbi, Chaim Eisenberg, then listened to him pray. Benedict bowed twice before shaking hands with representatives of the Jewish community.

Speaking earlier to reporters accompanying him on the flight from Rome, Benedict said he wanted to show "our sadness, our repentance" for the Holocaust and "our friendship with our Jewish brothers." The pope's use of the word "repentance" was especially important because it recognizes guilt and responsibility, which Jewish leaders have been seeking.

"There is no dearth of acknowledgment of what happened, but rarely do we get a clearly pronounced acknowledgment of guilt of the clergy," Robert Liska, a prominent member of the Viennese Jewish community, said before the pope's visit. "It is a question of how much he talks about responsibility and real individual guilt of church leaders. Are church leaders prepared to make amends or just try to smooth over the edges?"

Before the war, Vienna's Jews were among Europe's most prosperous and successful. They numbered 200,000; after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, most fled and at least 65,000 were killed in Nazi death camps.

Austrians were slower than most other Europeans to recognize their complicity with the Nazis. Austrian President Heinz Fischer, in greeting the pope Friday, acknowledged "dark hours" in Austria's history.

Today, the Jewish community here is tiny but thriving. There are three Jewish schools and numerous kosher restaurants and food stores. Within a few yards of where the pope was standing Friday are the ruins of Vienna's first synagogue, built in the 12th century. Also nearby is a Jewish museum, and the site where hundreds of Jews were burned alive in 1421 for refusing to convert to Christianity, the latter still bearing a medieval plaque celebrating the killing of the "Hebrew dogs."

The rectangular Holocaust monument, designed by British artist Rachel White- read, was unveiled in 2000.

In his address to welcome the pope, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, noted that Christianity's roots are in Judaism. Jesus, Mary and St. Peter were all Jews, he said.

"It is part of the tragedy of this city," Schoenborn said, "that precisely here these roots were forgotten, even denied to the point where godless will destroyed the people to whom God gave his first love."

Although Jewish-Catholic ties have improved in recent decades, there have been setbacks. Most recently, Benedict was criticized by top Jewish groups after reinstating a Latin Mass that contains a prayer for the conversion of Jews, and after being photographed in a private meeting with a Polish priest known for anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Turning to Catholics and the primary purpose of his pilgrimage, the pope offered gratitude to believers who stuck with the church during a string of scandals.

"I hope that I still can help in the healing of these wounds," Benedict told reporters aboard his flight, adding his appreciation for those who "in a church of sinners nonetheless recognized the faith of Christ."

In 1995, the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, was forced to step down amid allegations he molested young men in the 1970s. In 2004, about 40,000 pornographic images surfaced on seminary computers; they included pictures of seminarians in sexual poses.

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