Benedict and Us / Speaking to His Own Flock

Those who were disappointed that the German-born pope, Benedict XVI, did not offer an explicit apology at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial yesterday for the Catholic Church's conduct during the Holocaust have only themselves to blame. Popes don't admit mistakes because they are infallible. But those who were expecting the head of the Vatican, who was once a member of the Hitler youth movement, to enter the Hall of Remembrance himself instead of sending a deputy were rightly disappointed, certainly after his peculiar decision to accept the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson back into the fold of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict's declaration that the "Church feels deep compassion for the victims" of the Holocaust, as well as his denunciation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, might have been considered brave steps a decade ago. But now, in the wake of the way his predecessor dealt with the subject, it seems too little, too late.

"I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived," Pope John Paul II said during his visit to Yad Vashem nine years ago. "I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, ere murdered in the Holocaust."

He spoke of his personal experience from that period. On that occasion the tormented pope seemed to offer his personal sentiments to the victims. Pope Benedict, however, seems to prefer to keep his distance. Still, the visit yesterday by a pope, who 64 years ago briefly served in the Wehrmacht, to Yad Vashem where he laid a wreath, is significant.

It isn't his fault we were disappointed. We don't understand the Catholic Church and its dogma. At Yad Vashem yesterday he was not addressing the Jews. Like any leader he used words that would be understood by his support base, the Church's one billion adherents around the world. In that sense, John Paul II was different. He was a media superstar. Two weeks before his visit to Israel he made a sweeping apology in Rome for sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church throughout history. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, opposed the prayer at the time. An eyewitness told Haaretz that during the ceremony he seemed pale and tense. Once he became pope he began to see things differently, becoming more flexible. Considering his reputation as a conservative, his visit to Israel in itself is a big compromise.