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The Jews and the frail Pope

· A conversation with Rabbi Jack Bemporad ·

Every time you met John Paul II you had the feeling that something important was happening; he had a solemnity about him that was instantly perceptible. However, the full value of the Polish Pope has not yet been recognized, particularly as a moral philosopher — an aspect that should be studied in greater depth. These opinions were expressed by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, 78, a man who has spent his life promoting mutual understanding between religions. He was born in Italy but moved to the United States when he was six years old, after the approval of Mussolini’s racial laws. The Rabbi led Jewish communities in Texas, California and New Jersey. Since 1992 he has lived at the Center for Inter-Religious Understanding in Rome and teaches at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas. Bemporad was and is an important spokesman for relations with the Church: he worked with Cardinal Willebrands and Cardinal Cassidy to achieve full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, he met John XXIII — the Vatican Council “was one of the crucial experiences of my life”, he says — as well as Benedict XVI. And of course, he had frequent meetings with Karol Wojtyła, of whom, on the eve of his Beatification, he spoke in this interview with L’Osservatore Romano.

Rabbi Bemporad, you met John Paul II several times, for example in Denver (1993) and in Vatican City (1994), when you discussed the view of Jews in the Catholic Cathechism. You also led a large delegation of Rabbis and religious leaders to thank the Pope shortly before his death. What are your memories of these meetings?

Perhaps the first impression one had in meeting personally with Pope John Paul II was his gravitas . A presence immediately made itself manifest which made you feel that something important was at stake. At the same time, his profound humanity and love shone through and you felt he was interested in you and in what you were doing and the topic at hand.

In Denver the meeting took place late in the day, since it was scheduled after his many talks and conferences and his concern was that religions work together to offer an objective and universal ethic that could help deal with the pressing problems we face; war, poverty, inequality, and lack of education in so many parts of the world.

The meeting at the Vatican was much more theoretical and theological. It related to the work our Center had done in educating the interreligious community on the new catechism and the topic was how best to conduct theological dialogue between Christians and Jews.

What one was left with after these and other meetings was the Pope’s complete dedication to making the world better for all human beings, his dedication to a dialogue wherein one must be true to one’s own faith without being false to the faith of others, and how serious and difficult this task was.

When John Paul II visited Jerusalem, you commented on the event in the media. Looking back, according to you, what really made that trip so memorable?

I think the image of the frail Pope, with no assistance from his aids, slowly walking to the wall to insert the beautiful prayer of forgiveness and reconciliation struck an unforgettable chord in the hearts of Jews, not just in Israel, but in Jews throughout the world. I also think his meeting with Polish Holocaust survivors, who recognized that this Pope as a young man was a witness to this horror, demonstrated his solidarity with the suffering of the Jewish people.

In your opinion, which act of John Paul II has been most appreciated by the Jewish Community?

I think his most important act was the visit to the Synagogue in Rome which included a re-statement of the most important innovations of Nostra Aetate and subsequent documents. Pope John Paul II believed that the changes between Christians and Jews should be given significant expression. What better way to show these changes than to walk into the Rome Synagogue, embrace Rabbi Toaff before the whole world.

Did the personal attitude of John Paul II contribute to building Jewish opinion with regard to the Pope?

Yes, the Jewish people have the highest opinion and respect for John Paul II. He was the first Pope to enter a synagogue and he authorized Cardinal Cassidy to ask forgiveness for past acts of anti-Judaism, using the Hebrew word, teshuvah , which means not only the asking for forgiveness, but the resolve to start out in a new direction. In addition, he initiated and completed the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See and wherever he went throughout the world, he met with Jewish communities to reach out in friendship and understanding. No prior Pope had done so much.

We are acquainted with the story of the Jewish orphan whom the young Karol Wojtyła refused to convert, respecting the will of the child's parents who had died in a concentration camp. If you were in similar circumstances, would you have done the same?

Yes, except that Judaism is not a religion that actively seeks proselytes. This act shows the Pope’s sensitivity and understanding.

John Paul II said that the Shoah and anti-Semitism also have an innate anti-Christian sense. Do you agree with this?

Of course! The idolatry of Führer worship and its pagan symbolism is antithetical to the teachings of both Judaism and Christianity and may I add Islam.

What is the major legacy he left to us?

Not to give up hope, not to be afraid, and that pessimism is a great sin. Also, and this has been unfortunately neglected, he was a great ethical and moral philosopher. His writings on the person and in the field of ethics will I think be carefully studied for generations to come.

As a leader in inter-faith dialogue, to which you have dedicated most of your life, what do you think is the solution for overcoming the difficulties in this area and in this epoch?

We must have much greater knowledge of each other and engage one another with compassionate understanding, recognizing that only in this way can we work together for good. In addition, through that work together we not only understand each other better, but we come to better understand ourselves and our relationship with our own religion.

We see anti-Christian violence in many countries around the world. Where does this “Christian-phobia” come from?

From fanaticism. This is a very serious problem, and we must work together to unite with those people in all faiths who are peace loving and striving for peace and justice in the world.

Was there a special moment in which you understood that “mutual understanding” among faiths could no longer be avoided?

For many years I have recognized that religions have great power for good and for ill, and that political and secular solutions are not going to succeed alone – that the world’s religions must do the job.

What roles do economic and political issues play in interreligious dialogue? Can we even talk about peace among religions while isolating the discussion from that of justice among nations?

No, of course not. But let us recognize that it is religion that gave the ideal of humanity to the world, an ideal that must be preserved and implemented. Perhaps the best example of this is the institution of the Biblical Sabbath, that no one can be forced to labor seven days a week but that each person must be in control of his or her time at least for one day so that such a person can begin to perceive him or herself as a subject and not an object. If political and economic issues are dealt with in strictly secular terms without the framework of the intrinsic dignity of all human beings there is the danger of a slippery slope where the intrinsic dignity is lost.

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