Homage from the Jewish community
on the Memorial Day
“What are you doing here? You should be a priest.” A small joke served to melt the tension of a high Israeli political exponent sent to meet the Pope and helped to start one of his most difficult missions with a smile. Yossi Peled, a senior officer in the Tsahal, the Israeli defense forces and close collaborator of Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, remembers with affection the intense days of John Paul II’s 2000 visit to Israel and the cordial meetings which followed and led to the breakdown of barriers and the establishment of Israel-Holy See diplomatic relations.
“There is only one reason for my visit today,” said Peled. “To pay homage to the figure of John Paul II. From the moment I arrived in Israel at the age of 9, it is the first time I have agreed to be away from my country on this day which commemorates the Shoah. I have done so to be here in Rome, amidst this crowd and to say thank you in the name of the entire Jewish people.”
“For us,” said the Minister, who also had the opportunity during the visit to cordially meet representatives of the Palestinian Authority, “he was a unique Pope, not one among many. This great day in Rome represented the best way to pay him homage.”
The Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechai Lewy accompanied the Minister. “I wish to remember that John Paul II’s relationship with Judaism was not just the result of an intellectual process but also due to a profound emotional involvement.”
The great humanity expressed by John Paul II was also commented on by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni. “A Jewish point of view necessarily distinguishes the human value demonstrated by this Pope from the theological considerations that continue to divide us. John Paul II conducted a revolution, breaking down the millennia-old wall of diffidence erected towards the Jewish world. He emanated a great spirit of sympathy. His visit to the synagogue in Rome, the missions in Israel, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state were fundamental steps. Obviously, the beatification is totally extraneous to our way of thinking, but we view this great day in Rome in honor of John Paul II as an important sign of religious sentiment, a fact which demonstrates that the religious sentiment is a need felt by millions of citizens. Perhaps, apart from his great human sympathy and apart from important theological differences (from the formulation of the declaration Dominus Iesus to the beatification of Edith Stein), it is precisely this different way of understanding religiosity which signals a boundary. We still see it today on occasions of significant interreligious encounters, like Assisi. We don’t believe that religious sentiment alone is sufficient to divide good men and bad. And we don’t believe that dialogue can grow, and go beyond an initial emotional feeling, if not in a climate of equals.”
Chief Rabbi Emeritus, Elio Toaff, who welcomed John Paul II on his visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986, celebrated his 96th birthday on the very day of the beatification in Rome. “The memory of Karol Wojtyla,” he said, “remains indelibly impressed in the collective memory of the Jewish people. His call to brotherhood and to a spirit of tolerance, alien to all forms of violence. In the afflicted history of relations between Roman Pontiffs and the Jewish people, in the shadow of the ghetto in which they were reclused for over three centuries in humiliating and depressing conditions, the figure of John Paul II emerges luminous in all of its exceptionality.”
“John Paul II,” said Sergio Minerbi, Israeli diplomat with Italian origins and an expert on Christian-Jewish relations, “demonstrated extraordinary communicative gifts. But if we analyze the texts of declarations and comments, there is no doubt that from a Jewish point of view, Benedict XVI has made progress that goes beyond the work of his predecessor. I refer in particular to the great work of an original reading of the Gospels to correct the accusation of deicide. To understand the extraordinary and important communicative quality of John Paul II, I would point to his visit in Israel in 2000 when he placed a note in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Few, however, read its contents, in which there was not a specific request for forgiveness and did not even include the words Christian or Jewish.”
On this same topic, but with a different point of view, the historian Anna Foa offered her interpretation. “During his pontificate, John Paul II made gestures towards the Jewish people of great symbolic value. He made visible and definitive the change that was put in place by the Council and the declaration Nostra Aetate, on which his predecessor, Paul VI, had also worked in a deep, if less resounding way. The visit to the synagogue in Rome, the documents on forgiveness on the occasion of the third millennium, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, the visit to the Western Wall, were all events and gestures whose value certainly cannot be overestimated. The official ideology of the Church openly condemned the anti-Jewish tradition, as stated in the words of the 1998 document, We Remember: a Reflection on the Shoah. Equally significant is the prayer recited by the Pope at the Western Wall on March 26, 2000.
In a strictly theological sense, we cannot say that John Paul II brought real and true innovation. He certainly recalled and deepened the important suggestions of Nostra Aetate, such as when in 1986 on his visit to the synagogue in Rome he affirmed that, “the Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ but in a certain sense, ‘intrinsic’ to our religion.”
“These are suggestions,” Foa continued, “which open new roads to the interpretation of the theological rapport between the two religions and on the genesis of the birth of Christianity from Judaism and we wait for Benedict XVI, as some of his comments have already suggested, to investigate and elaborate them.
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