A great healer

rome | Though a staunch conservative on most Catholic issues, Pope John Paul II made bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a centerpiece of his policy and took revolutionary strides toward this goal during his reign. The pope repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust on many occasions, presided over the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and met frequently with Jewish religious and lay leaders.

To be sure, lingering tensions and unresolved issues remained. But in general, most Jewish observers say the Polish-born pontiff, who died Saturday, April 2, at age 84 after a lengthy illness, will be remembered as the friendliest pope ever toward the Jews.

“Pope John Paul II was a man of peace, a friend of the Jewish people, who worked to bring about historic reconciliation between the peoples and to renew diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican at the end of 1993,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet.

“It is safe to say that more change for the better took place in his 27-year papacy than in the nearly 2,000 years before,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in a tribute.

World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman said that John Paul II “reached across millennial divides to promote mutual respect and understanding. His lessons and accomplishments are a legacy for Catholics, Jews and all humanity.”

Rabbi Jack Bemporad was one of more than 100 rabbis and cantors who met with the pope in January to thank him for his commitment.

“No pope has done as much or cared as much about creating a brotherly relationship between Catholics and Jews as Pope John Paul II,” Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Secaucus, N.J., said at the time.

“For me, it’s simply revolutionary,” added Bemporad. “I believe Pope John Paul II will be considered a great healer in the relationship between Catholics and Jews.”

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, then the 58-year-old archbishop of Krakow, was elected to the papacy in October 1978. The first pope from Poland and the first non-Italian to sit on the papal throne in more than 450 years, he took the name John Paul II to honor his immediate predecessor, who died after only three weeks in office.

Wojtyla assumed the papacy just 13 years after the Vatican’s historic Nostra Aetate declaration opened the way toward Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The declaration, issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII, condemned anti-Semitism and for the first time officially repudiated the age-old assertion that the “perfidious Jews” were collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

John Paul’s papacy built on this, and in Jewish terms it was marked by dramatic “firsts,” starting with the pontiff’s personal history. Born in 1920 in the town of Wadowice, near Krakow, he was, in short, an eyewitness both to the Holocaust and to the oppressive and often anti-Semitic policies of communism.

Wojtyla grew up at a time when Poland was the heartland of European Jewry. The country’s 3.5 million Jews represented 10 percent of Poland’s overall population. Wadowice itself was more than 25 percent Jewish, and the future pope had Jewish friends, neighbors and classmates.

Half of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Shoah were Polish, including the future pope’s friends and neighbors. Wojtyla himself worked in a Nazi slave labor camp and studied for the priesthood in secret.

After World War II, the discovery of what had happened at Auschwitz, only a few miles from his hometown, marked Wojtyla for life.

As pope, John Paul referred to the 20th century as “the century of the Shoah,” and it was highly symbolic that in 1979, on his first visit back to Poland after his election, he knelt in prayer at Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the Jews killed there.

Throughout his reign, John Paul repeatedly recalled the Holocaust and condemned anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity. On his more than 100 trips around the globe, he sought to meet with Jewish leaders. He also issued unprecedented expressions of contrition for past Christian hostility and violence toward Jews.

The most dramatic of the pope’s many meetings with Jews took place in April 1986, when he crossed the Tiber River to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship since Peter.

After warmly embracing Rome’s chief rabbi, the pope spoke of the “irrevocable covenant” between God and the Jews.

With Judaism, he said, “we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it may be said that you are our elder brothers.”

The pope’s historic visit to Israel in March 2000 marked a culmination of these policies. His visit was formulated as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to mark the beginning of Christianity’s third millennium, but it brimmed with significance for Jews as well.

He visited Yad Vashem, and at Jerusalem’s Western Wall he bowed his head in prayer and slipped a typed, signed note into one of the cracks between the stones.

But several issues still dog Catholic-Jewish relations and continue to provoke clashes from time to time.

These include differences over what can be called “historical memory” — for example, over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, whom the Vatican wants to beatify but whom critics accuse of failing to speak out to save Jews during the Shoah.

Looming above all is the question of whether John Paul’s proactive teachings about Jews will endure, and whether they will trickle down to the world’s 1 billion Catholics.

During his audience with the rabbis and cantors in January, John Paul noted that 2005 marks the 40th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration and urged “renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation.”

But Jewish observers have expressed concern that John Paul’s successor may not have the same commitment.

“You’re not going to get anybody with his sensitivity,” Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said in January. “The fear is, whatever you’ve got done can be undone.”

POPE JOHN PAUL II, 1920-2005
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Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.