The Vatican has moved to repair Catholic-Jewish relations, which have eroded since Kurt Waldheim, the accused Nazi who is president of Austria, visited Pope John Paul II in June.
Cardinal Jan Willebrands, head of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, late Tuesday invited American Jewish leaders to a "substantive" meeting with the pontiff in Rome later this month, before the pope's scheduled visit to the United States in mid-September.
Willebrands extended the invitation by telephone to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, according to Jewish officials.
Waxman yesterday called a meeting of Jewish officials who voted to accept the invitation, although two Orthodox leaders abstained.
"This represents a significant breakthrough in our tensions," said Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee and a principal figure in recent negotiations with the Vatican over the Waldheim meeting.
That meeting drew a storm of protest from Jewish leaders around the world. Because of his alleged Nazi past, Waldheim has been barred from visiting the United States.
Tanenbaum, a major figure in Catholic-Jewish relations for decades, characterized the meeting with John Paul II as "unprecedented." Meetings between pontiffs and Jewish leaders are rare and almost exclusively ceremonial, he said.
At this one, the Vatican has committed itself to "substantive discussions" on issues relating to the unique suffering by the Jews during the Holocaust, Tanenbaum said.
The pope's invitation was seen as a major concession to Jewish leaders and American Catholic bishops who had pressured the Vatican for a meeting to clear the air prior to the papal visit.
Since the Waldheim controversy erupted in late June, the bishops had been working to smooth over relations, according to Russell Shaw, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The invitation, Shaw said, "is a testimony to our good faith and good will toward the Jewish community."
During the pope's U.S. visit, John Paul II and Jewish leaders originally were scheduled to meet on Sept. 11 in Miami. But after the pope held his private meeting with Waldheim, leaders of several Jewish organizations said they would boycott the Miami meeting.
Tanenbaum said he expects the Miami meeting will take place if Jewish leaders can persuade the pope to issue a declaration following their summit in Rome. That statement, Tanenbaum said, should make clear the pope's feelings about the Holocaust and the suffering endured by the Jews during the 1930s and 1940s. Tanenbaum said Jewish leaders also will ask the pontiff to address the problem of increased incidences of anti-Semitism that Tanenbaum said have occurred, notably in Europe, since the Waldheim affair.
The Jewish leaders' meeting with the pope, expected to be about an hour long, will follow a daylong discussion on Catholic-Jewish relations with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and his staff, according to Tanenbaum.
The rapprochement evident in yesterday's events began in New York in early July, according to Tanenbaum, at a hastily scheduled meeting between Casaroli and four Jewish leaders, including Waxman and Tanenbaum.
During that discussion, Jewish leaders explained to Casaroli what an "incredible offense" it was to them that the pope would meet with Waldheim and make no reference to the Holocaust, Tanenbaum said. They told Casaroli that sometimes John Paul II shows great sensitivity to the Jews' suffering during World War II and that at other times, he seems to ignore it, as in his visit earlier this year to the Majdanek labor camp in Poland.