‘We Remember’ Holocaust statement turns 20

On March 16, the Church marks 20 years since the publication of “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” or the Holocaust. Australian Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, then-president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, as well as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, noted at the time that the Church wanted not only Catholics, but all people, to remember the Holocaust and that the Church “does so also with the hope that it will help Catholics and Jews towards the realization of those universal goals that are found in their common roots.”

Pope St. John Paul II, in a letter accompanying the release of the document, said “On numerous occasions during my pontificate I have recalled with a sense of deep sorrow the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Second World War. The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close.”


John Paul II would die five years into the new millennium, and Cardinal Cassidy, who retired in 2001, is now 93 and back in his native Australia. “We Remember” remains a guiding text in the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, along with the Second Vatican Council’s decree on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965), which condemned the anti-Semitism and erroneous Church teaching that helped make the Holocaust possible.

Bishop Denis J. Madden, retired auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, has served as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (2011-14) and has extensive experience in interreligious dialogue, from his work with the bishops and from time spent living and working in the Holy Land. Bishop Madden shared his thoughts with Our Sunday Visitor on the importance of remembering the Holocaust, now 20 years after the Vatican offered its statement. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:

Our Sunday Visitor: What motivates the Church to place such importance on remembering? We see how radioactive a practice such as Holocaust denial is — and should be — in our discourse. Is this as simple as those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it?

Bishop Denis J. Madden: I think society, humanity itself, has a tendency to forget how far we can go and what we are really capable of when we get to that dark area, and things like that can happen. ... That’s why we have to remember this terrible event, the Shoah.

OSV: The document cites Pope St. John Paul II’s call for the Church to acknowledge its own failings and sin at the dawn of the third millennium. It acknowledges the Christian character of the continent where the Holocaust occurred. How should Christians understand this failing, personally, collectively, etc.? How is that instructive?

Bishop Madden: I think in one sense this just shows that if we don’t speak out, don’t try to intercede in one way or another, things like this can happen. ... We were very negative about the Jews, and that negativity and that biased view of them, the stereotyping and so on, did have an influence on all those things. I like the part that [Cardinal Cassidy] talked about how the different bishops … spoke out about it, which is true. That’s historical. ... But I think we did play a part with our attitudes, by our lack of intervention.

OSV: What can you say about two central figures behind this document — John Paul II and Cardinal Cassidy — and the values that motivated them to make this a priority of their work?

From 'We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah
At the end of this Millennium the Catholic Church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age. This is an act of repentance (teshuva), since, as members of the Church, we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children. The Church approaches with deep respect and great compassion the experience of extermination, the Shoah, suffered by the Jewish people during World War II. It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding commitment. “We would risk causing the victims of the most atrocious deaths to die again if we do not have an ardent desire for justice, if we do not commit ourselves to ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of the children of the Jewish people. ... Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again” (quoted text from Pope St. John Paul II address in commemoration of the Shoah, 7 April 1994).

Bishop Madden: I think that Cardinal Cassidy, because of his great work in interfaith dialogue and his personnel and everything ... [had] a vision that led him through. I think with John Paul, going back to what he witnessed himself ... and with his personal relationships with Jews, that really spurred him on. It was almost like he experienced firsthand in a way that Cassidy did not. Cassidy experienced it more through dialogue and through relationship with Jews. And I think both of them just were outstanding. … I think that [John Paul] really felt the pain of it. ... He saw through the sinfulness of it, and I think that’s why he spoke the way that he did. And I think that the Jews recognized that. They knew that’s where it was coming from.

OSV: You spent time in an interreligious setting in a part of the world that has its own well-known Holocaust memorial/museum, Yad Vashem. How did you grow in interreligious understanding there, remembering an evil like the Shoah?

Bishop Madden: You really get a sense with the whole salvation story, the persecution of the Jews, what the Jews endured. And then at Yad Vashem, you see it expressed in concrete terms. I personally found it extremely difficult to go through there. ... I had to always take it a little bit at a time. ... It’s overwhelming. In our faith, we talk about suffering and the redemptive power of suffering. And here these people have gone through this. And I know it has a redemptive power, but when you see it, it’s just overwhelming. It just is.

OSV: The end of the document expresses a desire for ongoing conversion and to foster new relationships defined by love and mutual understanding. How can Catholics live this out more fully, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, or with anyone we might be tempted to call “other”?

Bishop Madden: The more we do things together ... you find yourself both getting immersed in that, and then you forget that there’s a separation between us. I found the same thing working in the Holy Land. When you would get Palestinians and Jews working together — doctors coming from Hadassah [the Women’s Zionist Organization of America] into Gaza to work in clinics there. They forget Hamas and Fatah and all these things; they’re treating children, that’s what they’re focused on. It brings people together.

Also what is important is that we should pray together. The other night ... in Hagerstown [Maryland], we had 200 Lutherans and Catholics singing and praying together. You had one congregation there! ... The more we pray together and the more we look at social opportunities to work together, I think that’s how we come closer together. It’s good to be well-informed and to know the history and so on, but I find that there’s something, when you find yourself actually praying to God and you’re doing it side-by-side ... when you leave that, you say, “Geez, why don’t we do we do this more often?”

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.