Cardinal Keeler On Israel
Jun 12, 2006
Cardinal William H. Keeler proudly points out the photograph hanging between the set of elevators leading to his seventh-floor offices. It shows Pope John Paul II alone in prayer in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the more poignant moments from the pontiff's 2000 visit to the Jewish state.
(jewishtimes.com, June 09, 2006) "I like to have it there so people can see what we're talking about, and many people have told me how struck they are by it," the cardinal said.
He is widely credited for helping to nurture the ties between U.S. Catholics and Jews, having been present at nearly every major Catholic-Jewish event in recent decades. For his efforts, Cardinal Keeler will this Sunday, June 11, receive the Baltimore Zionist District's Brandeis Award. He sat down last week with the Baltimore Jewish Times to reflect on the Vatican's relationship with the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Baltimore Jewish Times: How do Catholics define the State of Israel in theological terms?
Cardinal Keeler: Actually, I think of Pope John Paul II and when he met with Catholic and Jewish leaders at Castle Gondolfo [his summer residence in Italy] on Sept. 1, 1987 [after the controversy of his meeting with former U.N. Secretary-General and Nazi soldier Kurt Waldheim].
There was concern among some of the Jewish people that the Holy See had a religious framework for not recognizing the State of Israel, but a Monsignor Gotti made it very clear that there was no religious issue involved at all. It was a question of religious freedom and that's what they were looking at, the free exercise of rights of people. Until that could be cleared up, he said, the Holy See was not prepared to recognize the State of Israel, and the Holy See, by the way, at that time did not recognize the United States of America either. Both have been recognized since then.
The pope told us that he had meditated that morning on the story of the Exodus and that helped him to see the importance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people, and he said, 'It's your land of promise.' That's the way that I would see it, as a land of promise for the people.
He said when he spoke to the inter-religious gathering that each of our main faith families — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — regards this land as holy and therefore this should be the place that reconciliation begins among these religious bodies.
Can you reflect on your first trip to Israel, which was in 1961?
We went by way of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and then we crossed over to Israel. I was a student priest. What I remember was we had to use code words, especially in the Arab countries, to speak about where we were going — to Israel. I think 'California' was the code word. We'd say, 'When we go to California' and we had other codes for places in Israel such as Jerusalem.
What do you most recall from that trip?
In Israel, we were really trying to pray our own Christian gospels, to live them and to see them come to life. For example, Jesus picked out Peter to be the head of his apostles. We went to the place where according to our Scripture this happened, and we meditated there.
And a highlight from one of your next seven trips?
Later I went back with rabbis, including Rabbi Joel Zaiman in Baltimore, and we had such a marvelous visit because we went to the old synagogue at Capernicum. Dr. Eugene Fisher [of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] said this is the first time that the successors of the Pharisees have met with the successors of the apostles in the State of Israel. That was a moving event.
The church always says it strives to be unbiased in the very emotional Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What specifically would the church like to see happen?
I want to choose my words carefully. What we would like, which is what most American Jewish people with whom I have spoken to want, is a two-state solution to the problem that we have in the Middle East. But we want a two-state solution that is respectful of the rights of all people. That becomes very complicated because we talk about civil rights and religious rights. In the City of Jerusalem alone it's very complicated.
Do you have any particular concerns for Catholics in Israel?
What is happening is our Catholic people are being squeezed out and the pressure is coming from Muslims and the pressure is also coming from some of the Jewish settler types. So Christians are leaving the area and it's a very sad thing.
What should Jews know more about regarding the Catholics' view of the State of Israel?
I think that our Jewish friends realize, and surveys show, that among the strongest supporters in the U.S. for the State of Israel are the Catholic people. We believe the state is very important for the Jewish people and it's a land of promise for them. And I add that I see it as the only working democracy in the Middle East, and that's very important for us as Americans.