As we all witnessed and rejoiced in the beatification of Pope John Paul II this past weekend, many Jews throughout the world joined in our celebrations and honor of this great man. There in the 1.5-million-person crowd outside the Vatican on Sunday was an Israeli Cabinet minister who lost most of his family in the Shoah (Holocaust) but was hidden by a Belgium family who raised him as a Christian. “We have a high respect, a unique respect for John Paul,” Yossi Peled, a retired Israeli general said, “he is not just another pope for us.”
Pope John Paul II, like Pope John XXIII, was deeply affected by the history that he experienced during World War II, and the two of them dramatically changed the tenor of Jewish-Catholic relations in their teachings and policies. Pope John Paul II made confronting the Shoah and the fight against anti-Semitism one of the centerpieces of his papacy.
The young Karol Wojtyla witnessed firsthand the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, cities in Poland that once had thriving Jewish communities were gone. The pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. During his youth he befriended a number of Jewish young people during his foray into the theater.
As a young bishop Karol Wojtyla took part in the Second Vatican Council. This council radically changed the church’s relationship with the Jewish people when it promulgated the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965, which cleared Jews of the responsibility for the death of Jesus, renounced the claim that Jews had been rejected by God, condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews. As pope, John Paul II would turn these teachings into action.
Shortly after his election as pope in October 1978, Pope John Paul II often devoted his energy to improving relations between Jews and Catholics. He frequently met with Jewish leaders, repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and established diplomatic relations with Israel. One of his first public actions was in 1979 during his visit to Poland when he knelt and prayed at Auschwitz. Seven years later he made his historic visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship. There he warmly embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians.
On the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Pope John Paul II issued this appeal: “As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another.” In 1994, Pope John Paul II established full diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. In 1998, he promulgated “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” expressing the church’s “deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age.” In 2000, he visited Israel and publicly apologized for the persecution of Jews by Catholics over the centuries, including the Holocaust, and he deposited a note for forgiveness in a crack in the Western Wall.
These actions and teachings, as well as many others, won the hearts and respect of many Jews throughout the world. In honor of Pope John Paul II’s beatification the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance is installing a permanent exhibit about the pope, the center’s founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, told the Associated Press in Rome. Pope John Paul II “chartered a new course in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” said Hier, “no other pope did what he did to repair those relations.” The exhibit, which includes a film, will be installed “in a very prime location” in the Los Angeles museum, explained the rabbi.
Roman Catholics have so many memories of love and respect for Pope John Paul II. He fulfilled the most fundamental role of a pope by building bridges among a divided human family. Blessed John Paul II reached out with particular love and respect for the Jewish people, leaving a wonderful example and laying the foundation for healing of wounds and building a better future. May he continue to intercede for Jews and Catholics and our relations with one another. May his memory be a blessing for both our families of faith.