Interreligious Delegation Visits Nazi Death Camp During SHU-Sponsored Study Tour
Group meets with Pope Benedict XVI to present Nostra Aetate Award
A group of Catholic bishops and Jewish rabbis returned to the United States last week forever changed by their visits to two holy places, one where God cried and one where God smiles, in the words of one delegate.
On a study tour sponsored by Sacred Heart University’s Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, the clergy first walked the grounds of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland where 1.2 million Jews and others were exterminated during World War II, and then traveled to the Vatican, where they met with religious officials, including Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop Brian Farrell, vice president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
“One was a place of death, the other a place of life,” said Most Rev. Richard J. Sklba, of Milwaukee.
Most Rev. Michael Cote, Bishop of Norwich, Conn., said he had read about the Holocaust and seen photographs of the horrors, but nothing prepared him for the experience of standing in a crematorium or confronting the unimaginable atrocities that occurred behind the barred wire fence of the death camp.
“It was very stark, very shocking, overwhelming,” Bishop Cote said.
“There is a book at one of the gas chambers and crematoriums in which visitors can record their thoughts. All I could write was, ‘Only God can understand the depth of evil at this place.’ It’s almost incomprehensible,” Bishop Sklba said.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, CCJU Executive Director, who was also making his first trip to Auschwitz, called the experience “shattering.”
At the Vatican, the delegation, which included University President Anthony J. Cernera, Ph.D., presented the pontiff with the CCJU’s Nostra Aetate Award for the great contributions he has made to Christian-Jewish understanding.
“If I could read his eyes, he was very happy to see rabbis and bishops traveling together, talking together, seeing each other as colleagues and friends,” said Rabbi Korn. “When I told him that we had been to Auschwitz just the day before, I could see his eyes light up. He was enormously interested both as a Pope and as a German citizen. He was going to Vienna the very next day to participate in a ceremony commemorating the Jews of Austria who were killed [in the Holocaust], so it really struck a chord with him,” Rabbi Korn said.
“When we met Pope Benedict, I said, ‘Holy Father, this is a wonderful group of rabbis and Catholic bishops. Pray for us and our work.’ He looked at me and said, ‘It is very important for the future that you be together,’” Bishop Cote said.
Rabbi Korn agreed. “Both religions face common challenges, whether from religious fanaticism on the right or relativism and materialism on the left. Neither of our traditions can survive in a world where human life has no sanctity and where there is no firm grasp of truth or moral good, or in a world where religion becomes irrational and violent,” he said.
Rabbi Korn said the trip to Rome signified the new relationship that exists between Jewish people and the Catholic Church. “That visit couldn’t have happened 100 years ago,” he said. “There are enormous possibilities that we need to make real in terms of Jewish-Catholic cooperation and understanding and making the world a better place. Both of our traditions are very rich and they can and should co-exist with each other,” he said.
“None of us has the power to change the past. We bemoan it, we regret it profoundly, but we can’t change it. We don’t want to forget it but we can’t change it. The only thing we can change is the future. So, together, it’s very important that we look at the future and work toward the future together,” said Bishop Cote, who was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the study tour.
“It’s a wonderful insight that Sacred Heart University has had to bring this about. It’s a laudable effort that they’ve made and a very positive thing,” Bishop Cote said.
This year’s participants also included Bishops Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida; Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana; Kevin C. Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Rabbis Irving (Yitz) Greenberg of Riverdale, New York, and Tsvi Blanchard of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, New York, New York.