Every New Year's, the pope issues a call for world peace, and every year the world ignores him. The papacy's sorry record in this area is never taken into account by the world press. It always carries his message, and it does so for two worthwhile reasons: the pope is both the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and a figure of towering moral standing. When it comes to peace, would that his wish were our command.

But the present pope, John Paul II, seems to have lost sight of his special responsibility as a universal moral figure. Specifically, he has agreed to meet with Kurt Waldheim, the president of Austria -- the Catholic head of state of a mostly Catholic nation. But Waldheim is also the man who lied about his past, who covered up his participation in and, unbelievably, even his knowledge of, Nazi atrocities in the very areas where he served as a German army intelligence officer. He professed an ignorance so absolute as to make the three monkeys -- hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil -- seem like investigative reporters.

A pope has many obligations. During the Holocaust, a timid Pope Pius XII thought his primary obligation was to the church. The murder of Jews was a secondary matter, and so the pope remained silent. He failed to rebuke and, even after the Nazis occupied Rome and deported Italian Jews to their death, the pope held his tongue. This was largely true of the church in general, although there were some clerics, such as the Berlin priest Bernhard Lichtenberg, who in 1941 publicly prayed for the Jews. For this, he was jailed and then transferred to a concentration camp.

As a consequence, there are some who believe that the church has a special obligation to the Jews -- to make amends and reassure. John Paul II seems mindful of this. He has reached out to the Jewish community and last year made an unprecedented visit to Rome's main synagogue. And as a Pole he needs no lessons about the horrible fate that befell his country during its occupation by the Nazis. Millions of his countrymen perished. Among them were 3 million Jews.

History, both recent and ancient, provides the context for Waldheim's meeting with the pope. But Waldheim is not a major historical figure. He is marginal -- a weak, slippery man whose role in wartime atrocities was, unfortunately, both ordinary and routine.

His real importance is contemporary because his crime is a contemporary one: denial. Waldheim's denial is so absolute, so bald, that he claims not only innocence but epic ignorance. The gruesome transport of Greek Jews from Salonika in Greece to Auschwitz in Poland, the massacre of Yugoslav partisans . . . all this was news to Waldheim even though he served in those areas. In his autobiography, he lied about his wartime service, denying truth to advance his diplomatic career. Now exposed, he concedes he was an officer in the German army but denies what our own Justice Department -- much as it wanted otherwise -- could not. It has banned Waldheim from visiting this country.

Little wonder Austrians elected Waldheim their president. Their presidency is a symbolic office, and Waldheim is a fitting symbol. Most Austrians supported unification with Germany (the Anschluss), 550,000 out of 7 million Austrians were Nazi Party members, and Austrians played a disproportionate role in the killing of Jews. Austrians commanded four of the six main death camps and made up one-third of the SS extermination units. If the occasion was anti-Semitism, little Austria showed it could rise to it.

It's late to punish the Austrians, nor should one generation pay for the sins of another. But acknowledgment is a different matter. That would help ensure that sons do not repeat the mistakes of fathers. It would prove that the Holocaust, like the genocides of Armenia and Cambodia, is not the work of a few diabolical men but of millions who participated and millions more who do nothing. Kurt Waldheim was a little of the former and all of the latter.

There is no institution more dedicated to memory than the Catholic Church. But in agreeing to see Waldheim, the pope lends his moral authority to Waldheim's amoral amnesia. Waldheim is not just another abhorrent head of state whom the pope must dutifully see, but one whose denial of his wartime activities is an echo of the church's own silence during that period. Unless the pope rebukes Waldheim when they meet, the audience can produce only two results. The standing of Waldheim will be increased and that of the pope diminished.