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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Pope Benedict and Father Leon Dehon

This past week we learn that Pope Benedict XVI was acclaimed by The Jewish Week by his decision to halt the "fast track beatification" of French priest Father Leon Dehon (1843-1925) due to allegations of anti-semitism, prompting a formal inquiry by the Church (Important Gesture by Pope Benedict, by James D. Besser. The Jewish Week June 17, 2005).

The beatification of Fr. Dehon by Pope John Paul II was scheduled on April 24, 2005 during the Eucharistic celebration in St. Peter’s Square. Jews took the Holy Father's move as a sign of his sensitivity to important issues in Jewish-Christian relations and that he would carry on his predecessor's commitment to fostering good relations between the Church and the Jewish people:

"This is exceedingly important," Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor was part of a 25-member Jewish delegation who met with the new pope last week. "This gesture is much appreciated and bodes well for the future," the rabbi said. . . .

Earlier this year, historians in France uncovered anti-Semitic writings by Father Dehon, who died in 1925, including his contention that Jews are “united in their hatred of Christ” and that the Talmud is a “manual for the bandit, the corrupter, the social destroyer.”

The hold on beatification — which was not a result of last week’s meeting with the Jewish delegation — also could point to a new Vatican sensitivity on other outstanding issues between the two communities, including the drive to elevate Pope Pius XII, the Holocaust-era pontiff, to sainthood.

“If this means they would consider slowing down the process on Pius XII until all the records are made available and analyzed, that would be a very good thing,” Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said. “That is an issue we have raised repeatedly. We will have more opportunities to raise it again when we are there in September and October.”

Further discussion can be found, of course, at Amy Welborn's blog ("Second Thoughts" June 10, 2005), where the commentators appear divided regarding the decision, with some proposing that the priest's sentiments should be taken in light of the historical context, especially given the fact that past Christian saints have also expressed claims about the Jews that could be judged anti-semitic in content.

Others question the basic prudency of beatifying any Catholic who expresses anti-Jewish opinions following the Holocaust, especially since, in the rise of anti-semitic incidents in Europe and worldwide, they may be fuel for misinterpretation and confusion regarding the Church's relationship with the Jewish people. Sandra Meisel muses:

The newspaper account says that this cause had been closed on account of the candidate's anti-Semitism in 1952. His attitudes were well known in France. So who saw fit to revive the cause and why? To catch the rising wave of European anti-Semitism? And why would the late Pope approve this, given his warm feelings toward Jews? Was information witheld?

Yes, we'd had anti-Semitic saints in the past, including St. Louis IX and St. John Capistrano. One would think this would be an easy call, post-Holocaust, but the Church recently ignored anti-Semitic elements in Anna Catharina Emmerich -- who made the blood libel -- and beatified her. We should be most grateful that this cause was stopped in time.

I don't see how one can impute deceptive motives on the part of Dehon's supporters in making their case for beatification. After reading about his life and vocation on the website of The Priests of the Sacred Heart, you see there is much one can admire: his devotion to Christ in prayer and veneration of the Eucharist, his solidarity with the poor and working class, his recognition of the "inalienable dignity" of every human being by virtue of their God-given soul ("whether in the body of a worker at the bottom of a dark coal mine, or in the body of a well-fed financier living in the lap of luxury").

According to the SCJ's vocation website, there are approximately "130 SCJ priests and brothers living and working within the United States [and] about 2300 SCJ priests and brothers world-wide," seeking to be "prophets of love and servants of reconciliation" in carrying out a variety of ministries in the world (including, for example, a ministry to the Native Americans from South Dakota to Wisconsin, Mississippi, Illinois, Florida and Texas).

In their defense, it is completely understandable that they would harbor a particular affection for the life and vision of their founder, and wish to see him recognized as a saint. Pope John Paul II also recognized the worth of their charism in his address to the Priests of he Sacred Heart of Jesus (Dehonian Fathers) on June 10, 2003:

This year is the 125th anniversary of religious life of Venerable Léon Dehon. You have wished to commemorate it with a special Dehonian Year that ends on 28 June, the day when you will be commemorating his first religious profession. He himself recognized it as the day on which your Congregation came into being. I hope that this will be an incentive to you to go back to your origins with that "creative fidelity" (cf., Vita Conscrata, n. 37) which will keep intact your charism, distinguished by constant contemplation of the Heart of Christ, conscious participation in his reparative sacrifice and zealous dedication to spreading the Kingdom of the Lord in souls and in society, since it is precisely the rejection of God's love which is the root cause of the evils in the world (cf. Constitutions, n. 4).

However, one must recognize the fact that whatever qualities are good and worthy of admiration in Fr. Dehon, his perception of the Jews in those statements attribute to him are indeed hateful and indefensible, justly meriting condemnation by the Church. And for that reason I concur with those questioning the prudency of such a beatification and the consequent decision of the Holy Father in calling for a formal investigation of the matter. To quote Lee Podles (on Amy's blog):

The poison of anti-Semitism has to be purged from the Church. The beatification of a recent figure who made such anti-Semitic statements would hinder this necessary purification. Can you imagine the legitimate furor if a German Pope canonized an anti-Semite, making excuses for the remarks?
* * *

According to the same article in the Jewish Week, the meeting of the Jewish delegation and Pope Benedict led some participants to speculate on the prospects of a more theologically-oriented dialogue between Jews and Christians:

"He’s a different person," [director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism Mark] Pelavin said of Pope Benedict. "He's a theologian by training and practice. That will color the dialogue. I think it will be more theological in nature. There will be a greater exploration of the idea of the Jews’ covenant with God, and how that relates to Catholic covenantal thinking. Those are things that will have an impact not so much in the political arena but in the teachings the Church uses."

Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said the meeting suggested Catholic-Jewish relations are poised to jump to a new level.

"After 40 years, the time has come for us to engage in mature theological dialogue," he said. "It’s time for us to recognize that we have very different ways of looking at texts; basic concepts like covenant and mission mean different things. This meeting signaled that it’s time to start unpacking those issues. We have to learn to celebrate our differences, not try to sweep them away."

Several participants commented on Pope Benedict’s demeanor at the meeting.

"At the beginning he seemed as taciturn and as sharp in his bearing as I would have expected," said one. "But as soon as we were finished with the formalities and he stepped down to greet each of us individually, the warmth and kindness were unmistakable."

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