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By Viktoria Somogyi

ROME, MARCH 22, 2008 (Zenit) - The personal witness of Benedict XVI, and before him, Pope John Paul II, plays a key role in the advance of relations between the Church and the Jews, says a Vatican aide.

Father Norbert Hofmann is the secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, within the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

We spoke with Father Hofmann about the Church's dialogue with the Jews, and particularly about an upcoming international congress to be held in Hungary and to focus on Catholic and Jewish perspectives on civil society and religion.

Q: How does the congress in Budapest fit within the development of relations between the Holy See and the Jewish world?

Father Hofmann: The Holy See began systematic dialogue with the Jewish world after Vatican Council II, that is, starting in 1965. On the part of the Jews, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations was founded in 1970. It is an organization that includes almost all the most important Hebrew agencies involved in interreligious dialogue.

From 1970 till now we have organized 19 encounters at the international level. The one we will have in Budapest, Nov. 9-12, will be the 20th. So it is an ongoing development, starting with the declaration from the Council, "Nostra Aetate," and over these years we've arrived at quite a good spot.

Q: Could you summarize for us the main stages of the journey that have led to this encounter?

Father Hofmann: The main purpose inspiring this conference in Budapest is to examine the situation of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews in the Eastern European countries. We chose Budapest because there is a fairly large Jewish community in this city and because the dialogue in this country has made a lot of progress.

We've covered so many important steps since beginning the official dialogue of the Catholic Church with the Jewish world. For example, Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to visit a synagogue, to pray at Auschwitz for the victims of the Shoah, and to go to Israel. He prayed at the Wailing Wall, visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust monument and museum. Then, importantly, there is not only the "Nostra Aetate" document, but also the texts published by the various bishops' conferences. The living witness of John Paul II and now Benedict XVI are even more important.

Six weeks after his election, Benedict XVI received the first Jewish delegation. Then, four months later he visited the synagogue in Cologne; a year later he then visited Auschwitz to pray for the victims of the Shoah. In addition, he intends to visit Israel as well, if the situation if favorable for organizing this visit. Dialogue with the Jews is close to Pope Ratzinger's heart.

After the steps taken in 2006, we organized an encounter in Cape Town, South Africa, to commit ourselves -- Catholics and Jews together -- to fight the AIDS epidemic. In 2004, we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to do something for the poor of that country who were going through an economic recession at that time. Then we chose Budapest to be able to examine the situation of Eastern Europe. So Budapest is our door to the East.

Q: Who will be participating?

Father Hofmann: For our part, half of the participants will come from Hungary, from the Hungarian bishops' conference; there will be cardinals, bishops, experts and professors who have a lot of experience in dialogue with the Jews.

On the part of the Jews, the local community will be involved, but I hope that they invite participants not only from the United States and Israel, but also from Europe and Eastern Europe. We've found that long term dialogue can be stimulated after conferences like these.

Q: What topics will be discussed?

Father Hofmann: The official topic will be: "Civil and Religious Society, Catholic and Jewish Perspectives." The purpose is to understand what point we are at in the dialogue with the Jews of Eastern Europe. In addition, we want to stimulate the situation in Hungary and in other countries of Eastern Europe in order to deepen Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Q: What are the major problem-areas of the debate?

Father Hofmann: The beatification of Pius XII; then the new prayer for Good Friday in the Tridentine Mass that has caused a bit of an uproar. We are now talking with our Jewish partners to clear it up, to balance out the situation.

But we should say that there are so many general problems. For example, we have a hierarchical structure, there's the Pope, the bishops' conference, cardinals; on the other hand, for Jews, there are different agencies. Therefore it is sometimes difficult for them to have a stable structure. We primarily have a religious interest, and sometimes the Jews want to talk about religion, but for them the cultural, social, and political aspects are also very important.

The other point in which the situation is very difficult is the conflict between Israel and Palestine: This conflict has always cast a shadow on our discussions and has sometimes mixed political affairs with religious affairs. Israel is the only country in the world where Jews are in the majority and Christians are a small minority. Then also, it is always important to the Jews to fight anti-Semitism. As John Paul II said: Anti-Semitism is a sin against God and against humanity. And so the Jews can be sure they have found an ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Q: What are the points of convergence?

Father Hofmann: There are so many, because spiritually and theologically Christianity has roots in Judaism. Christianity can't be understood without Judaism. As Cardinal Ratzinger once said, for the Jews and for our creed the one and only God is the God of Israel. There is also the second commandment, that we should help the needy, then the sacred Scriptures as the revelation of God's will, the Ten Commandments, ethics, how to live and completely fulfill oneself as a human being. Let's say that from a social point of view, we can do a lot together; even in the liturgy, in ethics there are so many similar elements. The religious foundation is enormous.

Q: On what levels is the dialogue between the Christian and Jewish world happening?

Father Hofmann: It is happening on the level of religion, social justice, discussions about theological issues, on Judaism's influence on Christianity and vice versa during the Middle Ages, on the Jewish roots. There is an ongoing dialogue to continue to find our own Christian identity. There is also the level of daily life: in New York, Jews and Catholics live right next to each other. They have to face daily life together, there are so many friendships.

Then there is the parish level, and in every bishops' conference, there is someone responsible for ecumenism and for interreligious dialogue. There is also the level of the universal Church regarding the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, but the true work is done by the bishops' conferences. And because there are few Jews in Asia, the most important dialogue is happening in the United States, Israel and in all the European countries.

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