As Catholics mourn the passing of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua — and debate his handling of the priest sex-abuse scandal, which broke under his watch — some longtime Jewish leaders are remembering him as a leader committed to improving Catholic-Jewish relations.
In his 35 years working at the Jewish Community Relations Council, Burt Siegel interacted with three different leaders of the Archdiocese: Bevilacqua, John Cardinal Kroll and Cardinal Justin Rigali.
Bevilacqua "reached out much more than anyone else," Siegel said.
Bevilacqua spoke in a number of synagogues throughout his tenure from 1988 to 2003, so much so that some Catholic friends joked that the cardinal was visiting more shuls than churches.
Siegel said he wholeheartedly supported the efforts to organize a series of programs surrounding the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993 and Pope John Paul II's visit to the Jewish state in 2000.
He also was open to having frank discussions about the church's efforts to canonize Pope Pious XII, who many believe could have done more to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Siegel recalled that Bevilacqua's predecessor, Kroll, once referred to abortion as a Holocaust during a memorial ceremony for the Shoah. Siegel said Bevilacqua was as hard-line on social issues such as abortion as any Catholic leader, but he would never have offended Jewish sensibilities in such a way.
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Bevilacqua followed in the path of reconciliation between Jews and Catholics set forth in the Second Vatican Council, but he really couldn't be considered an innovator in that area.
Sister Josephine Kase, former assistant director of the Archdiocese's Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the cardinal "brought an energy and an intentionality to his interest in the activities of our office."
She added that he often spoke about his "fond memories of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and helping with Sabbath lightings."