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Men who loved
God’s Chosen People

· On Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, soon to be canonized ·

As the world prepares for the canonization of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II on Sunday, 27 April, let us recall the unique relationships and efforts of both popes with and for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Both John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła), had very significant relationships with the Jewish people and were deeply marked by the Holocaust.

Angelo Roncalli

As Papal Nuncio in Istanbul, Turkey, then-Archbishop Roncalli helped save thousands of Jews, sometimes defying the policies of his superiors. He provided bogus papers to help Jewish refugees flee the Nazis and escape to Palestine. He personally encouraged the Catholic queen of Bulgaria to persuade her husband to protect the Jews of that nation. Perhaps because of what he saw during the Holocaust, John XXIII never lost an opportunity to modify church practices that nurtured anti-Semitism. He removed the term “perfidious” Jews from the Good Friday prayer. The pontiff decried theological anti-Semitism: “Across the centuries, our brother Abel was slain in blood which we drew...” he once prayed. “Forgive us, Lord, for the curse we falsely attributed to their name as Jews”.

John warmly received countless Jewish delegations during his five-year Pontificate. During one such audience, he introduced himself with a Biblical verse that alluded to his baptismal name and underscored the relationship between Christians and Jews: “I am Joseph your brother”.

Even though he did not live to see the completion of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII gave impetus to the formulation of the 1965 landmark decree Nostra Aetate, which overturned centuries of Catholic attitudes towards Jews. Nostra Aetate established Catholic Church teaching that the entire Jewish people of the time of Jesus was not complicit in his crucifixion, and that Jews of subsequent generations should certainly not be burdened with any form of collective guilt.

Karol Wojtyła

As a young boy, Karol Wojtyła, the future pope, played with Jewish classmates in his hometown of Wadowice in southern Poland. As a young man in Poland under Hitler, Karol Wojtyła was witness to hell on Earth. He personally rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a rail station, feeding and caring for her. His papal dealings with Jews and Judaism reflected that lifelong personal relationship. Pope John Paul II was a true friend and ally of the Jewish people, and broke down historic barriers of misunderstanding and suspicion in a way that was both bold and encouraging. Even the occasionally trenchant criticisms of the Pope by some Jewish spokespersons attest to the solidity that relationship attained under him, which no longer necessitated the polite delicacy and diplomatic niceties of the early, uncertain years of Jewish-Catholic conversation.

Four moments of John Paul’s remarkable relationship with Jews stand out in my memory for their profound symbolism: What Pope John XXIII did in the realm of theoretical, theological teaching, John Paul II translated into practical, visible, unmistakable preaching by example. First in 1979 during the Pope’s first home visit to Poland after being elected to the throne of Peter, he prayed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He paused at the Hebrew inscription commemorating the Jews killed there and said, “It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference”. He acknowledged what happened in Auschwitz, calling it “the tragic fruit of programmed hatred”, and remembering the millions “who, through no fault of their own, bore inhuman sufferings and were annihilated in the gas chambers and crematoriums”. Making a firm resolve never to repeat the past, Pope John Paul II stated that we must let the cry of the people martyred there change the world for the better, by drawing the right conclusions from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We pledge to move forward together, as Christians and Jews.

Then in April 1986, Pope John Paul II went to Rome’s synagogue to pray with the city’s Jewish community. He was not only the first to visit a synagogue, but his embrace of Rabbi Elio Toaf told of a willingness to reverse the antagonisms of two millennia. What he spoke went further yet, when he called Jews “our elder brothers of the Ancient Covenant never broken by God and never to be broken”. Noting Christianity’s unique bond with Judaism, he said, “You are our beloved brothers ... you are our elder brothers” in the faith of Abraham. This one-mile trip across the Tiber River to the Synagogue of Rome was believed to be the first time since Peter that a pope had entered the Rome synagogue, and symbolically it marked a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. Christianity has an organic relationship to Judaism that it does not have to any other faith.

Again in 1994, he attended a Vatican-hosted concert commemorating the Holocaust, Hitler’s World War ii effort to exterminate all Jews. “We risk making the victims of the most atrocious deaths die again if we do not have a passion for justice”, he said.

On 26 March 2000, at the conclusion of his historic Jubilee pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall, remnant of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, and placed a prayer in a crevice in the wall as Jews have done for centuries. This act crowned his lifelong commitment to furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding. The Pope’s prayer struck the major themes of his thoughts on Jews and Judaism: that Christians share with Jews reverence and worship of the same God, the common ancestry of Abraham to all who look to the Bible for inspiration, the unjust suffering directed against Jews over the millennia and the need for forgiveness for Christians and others who caused this suffering, the need to resolve to improve one’s future behavior in order to achieve genuine repentance, and, finally, recognition of Jews as the continuing people of God’s ongoing and eternal Covenant. After meditating at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Pope placed in the wall a written prayer to God expressing deep sadness for all wrongs done to Jews by Christians. The prayer read:

“God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior 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”.

Under Pope John Paul, the Vatican published guidelines on how Catholics should teach and preach about Jews and Judaism and issued a major document on the Holocaust that expressed repentance for the Christians’ failure to oppose the persecution of Jews. In 2000 the pope presided at a liturgy of repentance for the wrongs of Catholics toward Jews.

Less than five months into his papacy, he met with leading representatives of world Judaism. In that important first meeting, he reiterated the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of anti-Semitism and pledged to foster Catholic-Jewish dialogue and “do everything in my power for the peace of that land which is holy for you as it is for us”.

Meetings with representatives of the local Jewish community were a regular feature in his travels to 129 countries around the world. Pope John Paul met with more Jews and Jewish communities in more places around the world than all the previous popes since Peter.

Visiting Germany in 1980, he summarized the proper Catholic approach to Judaism with the words: “Who meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism”. He described Jews as “the people of God of the Old Covenant never retracted by God”.

Throughout his priestly, episcopal and Petrine ministry, Pope John Paul II consistently condemned anti-Semitism as a sin and acknowledged the suffering of Jews throughout the ages and in the Holocaust. He used the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’ to speak about the Holocaust. John Paul II became a true embarkation point for Christians and for Jews. He taught both Christians and Jews not to be afraid of each other, nor to fear our deep, biblical narratives that unite, rather than divide us. Nothing can remove our sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiaries of God’s saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus, who we Christians believe to be son of Israel and Son of God.

For the Jewish people, a traditional Jewish expression of sympathy at the death of loved ones is “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). Pope John Paul II’s life and papacy were indeed a blessing for the Catholic and Jewish communities, and for the unique relationship between them. As the years pass, may his memory also be a blessing, a model, a point of embarkation and an inspiration, that another generation of Catholics and Jews will commit themselves to pursuing with energy, commitment, respect and faith the dialogue which was so close to Pope John Paul’s heart, and which will remain such a key part of his historical legacy.

Pope John Paul II at the Synagogue of Rome welcomed by Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, 13 April 1986

Upon John Paul II’s death in April 2005, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, of Neve Shalom Synagogue in New Jersey, offered one of the most touching and hopeful evaluations of John Paul’s legacy in terms of Catholic-Jewish dialogue: “When Michelangelo was on his deathbed, his students at his bedside wailed: ‘Michelangelo, how will Rome ever get along without you?’ To which, it is reported, Michelangelo faintly waved his hand to the window, with its vision of his sculptures and architecture, and whispered, ‘Rome will never be without me’. Surely, John Paul would not be so boastful. But because he has reshaped the Catholic Church during his long tenure, we Jews, “the elder brother”, are hopeful in declaring, “We Jews shall never be without you”. (“Respect for faith’s ‘elder brother’,” in USA Today (5 April 2005); on line at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/20...

Both Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II were righteous popes in the clear ways that they stood against anti-Semitism in the Roman Catholic Church. While Pope Francis approved John XXIII and John Paul II for the Church’s highest honor in a process that quick-stepped protocol, Jews, on the other hand, remember both of these men for taking steps that were a millennium in the making.

Thomas Rosica, csb
ceo of Salt and Light Television

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