Pope John Paul II and the Jews


Extensive global travels and his skilful use of media have made John Paul II the most famous Pope in history. No other public figure in recent times could expect to attract three hundred heads of State to his funeral, or have two million people file past his body as it lay in state. An indefatigable missionary, who became known as the ?pilgrim Pope”, he was the first Pope to visit all the inhabited continents of the world and has drawn the largest crowds in history.

John Paul II has been a  paradoxical figure for most of his pontificate, being both a social progressive and an ecclesiological reactionary, a pastoral bishop deeply influenced by Vatican II, but also deeply imbued with an extreme conservatism in the church?s domestic policy in areas such as sexual ethics, women, and church discipline. Yet, in the area of Christian Jewish relations and interfaith John Paul II?s achievements have been monumental. Tributes from Muslims, Jews, Christians and others have been overwhelming.

He made it a special priority to continue the process of reconciliation between the church and the Jews that began with ?Nostra Aetate”, half a century ago. Numerous tributes from the Jews of the world bear witness to the fact that John Paul was a significant figure. As one Jewish friend said:

I know that many Catholics were not always in agreement with Pope John Paul II in terms of his theological and social directions but I admired him greatly – perhaps because of a combination of many things – but mostly because he spoke from the heart. . . .

I had a great affection for Pope John Paul II in his outreach, in his personal humanity even if his adherence to conservative rites and theology were difficult for many. After his death is not a time to find fault. He was born close to Oszwienczem which became famous as Auschwitz. I was impressed at his ability to communicate in so many languages as part of that outreach.

I admired his sincerity and apology for the excesses of the church, for the inquisition, for his rejection of the archconservatives in the Polish church and for his acknowledgement of the church's failings in the Holocaust, and his call at the time of blind adherence to Friedmanite economics in Europe for ?capitalism with a human face”.

He said that Abraham and his descendents are called in Genesis to be a blessing to humankind.

He said ?In order for us to be a blessing to humankind we have to be a blessing to each other.”

It is this expression of the ?values of a common humanity” (the title of Prof Raymond Gaita's book) which sum up his essence for me and I am sure for so many others.

History tells us that no other Pope in history has devoted so much time and attention to the Jews, whom he described as ?our elder brother”. The list of John Paul?s ground breaking relations with the Jewish community include a visit to the memorial at Auschwitz in 1979, during a tour of Poland. In May 1985 the ?Guidelines on Preaching about Judaism” were issued by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews,  (?Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis”). Earlier in 1975, three years before John Paul?s appointment to the papacy, the same commission had issued Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration ?Nostra Aetate” (n.4). John Paul actively encouraged this important work.

On April 13, 1986 John Paul II became the first Pope ever to enter a synagogue, where he embraced Rabbi Toaff on his visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome. In 1993 on April 6th, he commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and on December 30th, 1993, signed the historic agreement establishing formal ties between the State of Israel and the Vatican. The latter had been a contentious issues in Vatican/Israeli relations. Again, he became the first Pope to visit a mosque when he visited the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, site of the tomb of John the Baptist. On March 16th, 1998, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued the statement: ?We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah .” While some thought it did not go far enough, it represented an important acknowledgement of the Church?s two thousand year legacy of antisemitism having paved the way for the Sho?ah.

On March 12th, 2000 John Paul II and the cardinals asked forgiveness for sins, including those against the People of Israel.  During this same visit to Israel the Pope visited Yad Vashem and delivered a speech in the Hall of Remembrance.

Pope John Paul was a man of symbols. Probably the most enduring image that will remain of him is that scene where he prayed at the Western Wall, seeking forgiveness for past wrongs done to Jews by Christians.

John Paul?s relations with the Jewish community were not without their problems. The beatification of Edith Stein caused controversy in Jewish circles as did the beatification of Pius IX. The thorniest and most immediate problem for Jewish-Catholic relations is the beatification of Pius XII, which appears to be imminent. At stake, according to Sam Ser, is the historical and theological depiction not just of a Pope, but of the Holocaust itself, or its perpetrators and of its victims. Robert Wistrich sounded a note of warning when he said that those around John Paul  II ?want to fashion his legacy not in his work with Jews, but in his authoritarian approach to church matters. That could spell danger when combined with the church?s current problems”.

Let us return to the image of the bent white robed figure at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As is a Jewish custom, the Pope wrote a prayer and put it in a crack in the wall. On it were the words:

God of our fathers?we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.

The prayer is now preserved in the archives of Yad Vashem, the site in Jerusalem dedicated to remembering the Holocaust.

May his memory be a blessing.