Analysis: Why talking to the Vatican paid off

The last two years have not been good for the traditionally testy relationship between the Vatican and the Jewish people.

The historical dispute over the conduct of the Holy See during the Holocaust flared up last year when the Papal Nuncio to Jerusalem threatened to boycott Yad Vashem over its portrayal of wartime Pope Pius XII. Tensions rose again last month over reports that Pope Benedict XVI was about to beatify his controversial predecessor.

Benedict's decision to reinstate the Good Friday Tridentine Mass, with its Latin reference to the "blindness" of the Jews, has not helped soothe communal feelings.

Within the Jewish world, there were those who advocated not confronting the Vatican on these issues for fear of alienating over a billion Catholics. But the news that Benedict is to visit Israel in May is a victory for those who pushed for a firm and self-confident dialogue.

Benedict has always been viewed as a conservative theologian. His inauguration caused some fears for the future of interfaith relations. Some initial decisions and utterances did indeed delight Vatican hardliners, but his actions to address Jewish concerns have restored his image as the thinking-man's conservative.

Papal history is a slow-evolving process. The Vatican establishment usually takes centuries to fix the mistakes of previous popes. But Pope Benedict swiftly acted to clarify and modify the Tridentine mass and quietly assured Jewish representatives that Pius XII would not be canonised anytime soon.

There is more at stake, of course, than a dispute over a long-deceased Pope. Hosting the leader of the Catholic world in a Jewish state as an honoured guest has a symbolic power far beyond that of any ordinary diplomatic state visit. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI is German-born - and spent part of his boyhood in the Hitler Youth - gives that symbolism yet more power.

    Last updated: 2:27pm, November 8 2010