Pope Visits Holocaust Memorial in Austria

Vienna, Austria - The German-born Pope Benedict XVI offered a silent prayer at the spare Holocaust memorial at Judenplatz here today, saying earlier that his visit to Austria was aimed partly at showing “repentance” for crimes against Jews during World War II.

He visited the memorial, inscribed with the names of the 65,000 Jews killed in Austria then, not long after arriving on a chilly and rainy morning for what he termed a three-day “pilgrimage” to a nation he visited often before becoming pope two years ago.

The central event of this trip, his seventh out of Italy, will be a visit on Saturday to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Mariazell, 60 miles from Vienna.

But in remarks on the plane from Rome, the 80-year-old pope made clear he had other aims as well on a visit to this overwhelmingly Catholic country with a nonetheless turbulent recent history with the church.

Using unusually emotive words, he singled out the visit to the Jewish memorial, constructed in part from a medieval synagogue destroyed in a 15th century pogrom.

His prayer here, he told reporters, was meant “to show our sadness, our repentance and also our friendship with our Jewish brothers.”

At the memorial on Judenplatz, blooming with umbrellas against the rain, Benedict met with the Paul Chaim Eisenberg, and other leaders of Vienna’s 7,000 remaining Jews. In 1938, the city was one of Europe’s thriving Jewish centers, where some 185,000 Jews lived.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope — whose voice was still slightly hoarse from what the Vatican said was a sore throat — said he also hoped to offer encouragement to Catholics in Austria, which has lost significant numbers after two major sex scandals, in 1995 and in 2004, involving the clergy. The scandals worsened a general trend away from the church both here and around Europe in recent decades.

“I want to say thank you to everyone who has suffered in these recent years,” he said. “I know that the church in Austria has lived through difficult times, and so I am grateful to everyone — laity, the religious, priests — who remained faithful in all these difficulties for the church.”

“I would not say all these difficulties have been overcome,” he added. “But I hope I can be of some help in healing the wounds.”

His words are likely to be welcomed by Catholics here, a center for reformists who have complained that the Vatican had not sufficiently addressed the problems in the Austrian church. Though the crowds were relatively small in the rain, the pope was greeted enthusiastically with songs and chants of his name in Italian — “Benedetto!” — as he spoke at the central Am Hoff plaza.

“Your visit honors us and makes us happy,” the nation’s president, Heinz Fischer, told the pope at the airport here in a welcoming ceremony, held in a hangar because of the rain.

Late this afternoon, Benedict is scheduled to meet with the diplomatic corps in Vienna. He said on the plane his voyage is “not political but a pilgrimage” and so he did not plan to deliver an overtly political message.

“I want to reflect a bit on Europe, on the Christian roots of Europe, as a path to follow,” he said. “But it’s obvious in everything we do that dialogue, both with other Christians and with Muslims and other religions, is always present as a dimension of our actions.”