When some two dozen Jewish leaders met with Pope John Paul II here after the Sabbath ended Saturday night, it appeared as though the meeting was more ceremonial than substantive.
However, the gathering gave Jewish leaders an opportunity to relay their concerns personally to the pontiff.
The post-Shabbat meeting also was an indication of how highly the pope values relations with the Jewish community, given that he squeezed the gathering into his hectic four-day trip to the United States. The globe-trotting pope makes a point of meeting with local Jewish leaders wherever he travels.
When representatives of Jewish groups met with him in New York at the residence of the city’s archbishop, Cardinal John O’Connor, they were meeting with the Catholic leader who has – more than any other pontiff – shaped the relationship between the two communities in a positive way.
This pope has a “long history of solidarity with the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s interfaith affairs department.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, of the Park East Synagogues in New York and the founder of the ecumenical group Appeal of Conscience, said he thanked the pope “for taking a stand on anti-Semitism and remembering the Shoah.”
Schneier said, “His reply was `We must always remember the lessons of the Shoah,’ using the term `Shoah.'”
“Shoah” is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who also attended the event, said the topic of an encyclical on anti-Semitism was raised in the meeting.
Jewish groups want the pope to issue an encyclical – embodying many of the things he said previously – that would condemn anti-Semitism as a sin.
An encyclical is the highest level of interpretation a pope can issue. John Paul II has issued about a dozen during the 18 years of his papacy.
The issuance of the document would be a “worthy capstone” to the teachings of this pope, Rudin said.
Although the pope has maintained the Catholic Church’s traditional positions on a host of issues, from contraception to the ordination of women, he has broken dramatically with the church’s historical attitudes toward Judaism to reconcile with the community he has called “our elder brother in faith.”
The relationship has long been colored by mutual suspicion and hostility. Today, say many of those involved with Catholic-Jewish dialogue, it is a relationship based on mutual respect and for that they credit, on the Catholic side, the pope.
Pope John Paul II has done a great deal to implement the Catholic document Nostra Aetate, which first articulated the notion of a “spiritual bond” linking the church to Judaism, they say. Nostra Aetate, or In Our Time, was produced by the Second Vatican Council and adopted in October 1965. Dozens of times, he has addressed healing words to, and about, the Jewish community, and publicly condemned anti-Semitism as a sin. The first pope to visit a Nazi death camp, he visited Auschwitz in 1979, making special reference to “the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination.” He was the first pope to visit a synagogue. He went to a congregation in Rome in 1986. John Paul II was the first pope to commemorate the Holocaust formally, which he did with a tribute performance by Britain’s Royal Philharmonic at the Vacation on Holocaust Memorial Day in 1994. Under his reign, the Vatican finally established formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, in December 1993.
The tone set by this pope has had an important trickle-down effect on the Catholic Church worldwide, say observers, though there remains work to be done.
Both the German and Polish Catholic bishops conferences, for example, have issued documents apologizing for the role of Catholics in creating the horror of Nazism.
“It sets a tone and has tremendous impact on Catholic communities all over the world,” said the ADL’s Klenicki.
For centuries, Jews were viewed by Catholics through the prism of their liturgy, which portrayed them as the people who had rejected the revolutionary good news and salvation of Jesus’ message, and as the people who had murdered their lord.
Artisans decorating the portals of Gothic European cathedrals, for example, portrayed Judaism as a woman with her head bowed, holding a broken staff, which represented the law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments slipping from her fingers.
On the other side of the door, the image of the church was “resplendently erect and triumphant,” wrote Eugene Fisher, the director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops, in a new book of the pope’s speeches and writings about Judaism, called “Spiritual Pilgrimage: Texts on Jews and Judaism 1979-1995.”
The book, published last week, was compiled by the Anti-Defamation League in cooperation with the bishops conference.
When Nostra Aetate was adopted 30 years ago, the church articulated a new approach toward non-Christian religions and devoted special attention to the Jews.
But it was not until 1978, when Pope John Paul II was elected to lead the Catholic Church, which has some billion followers worldwide, that the new policy began to bear fruit.
Implementation has been slow. At times, it has strained the relationship between Catholic and Jewish dialogue partners, say participants.
But most agree that the pope, through his words and his deeds, has set a dramatically different tone within the church.
Attitudes toward Jews “have gotten much better in 18 years. There have been two more decades of working on it with a pope pushing the agenda forward,” said Fisher.
“When I started working in this field I could not presume a Catholic audience would understand what I meant when I spoke about the Holocaust. Today I don’t need to explain Holocaust to use it, and can use the Hebrew term `Shoah,’ and will tell them that it means Holocaust.”
In addition to expanding understanding of the Jewish community, old images have fallen by the wayside.
“I can’t go before a Catholic audience today and use the term `deicide,'” Fisher said. “Twenty years ago it would have been understood.
“Most educated Catholics consider that God remains in covenant with the Jewish people. This whole idea of a broken covenant is not in use anymore,” he said.
“There still prevails quite a bit of ignorance on both sides and a certain amount of guilt and distrust. But what looks like the fragile web of the relationship is remarkably strong and durable. Things have changed remarkably.”
For John Paul II, it has been a personal mission, say observers, one rooted in his childhood friendships with Jewish classmates in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland, and his witnessing of their destruction, a few years later, when they were destroyed by the Nazis and he was preparing to be a priest.
“No other pope in the long history of the Catholic Church has had so many contacts with Jews and Judaism,” Klenicki said.
In his autobiography, “Crossing the Threshhold of Hope,” John Paul II wrote about growing up in a small Polish town and, on Friday nights, listening to the sound of Jewish songs welcoming the Sabbath coming from the local synagogue.
“He emerged from the years of Nazi occupation to realize half the people he knew growing up had been murdered. The Holocaust is a personal experience for him,” Fisher said.
Despite all the gains, much work remains before all the obstacles between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community are overcome, say observers from both faith communities.
“Theologically we’ve resolved everything with the Catholics,” said the AJCommittee’s Rudin.
There are two areas that remain real obstacles to the dialogue, said Rudin and others.
They want the Vatican to open its archives dating from the Holocaust period to a joint team of scholars so that the church’s role can finally be revealed.
In addition, said Rudin, the Vadican has in its possession a treasure grove of Jewish artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages.
Among the items are manuscripts, menorahs and holy ritual objects and books, which, some say, were stolen by the church over the centuries, Rudin said.
“We should have a team of joint experts working together and going in a positive way to inventory them. And if something belongs to the Jewish community it should be returned,” Rudin said.
Perhaps most importantly, not all of John Paul II’s attitudes toward Jews and Judaism are reaching the Catholics in the pews.
The pope “has said and written a lot, but I’m not sure that when Catholics go to write their own internal documents, these materials are taken as seriously as they ought to be,” said John Pawlikowski, a Catholic priest and professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
The pope “needs to make the point more strongly that these documents are not just intended for the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, but are central to internal Catholic reflection on its own self-identity.”
The liturgy itself needs work, said Rose Thering, a Catholic nun who heads the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.
A booklet read by priests to their congregants before they preach the Passion – which has to do with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as described in the New Testament – explains that the church no longer views Jews as having been responsible for the death of Jesus.
The Scriptures read during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, have been the basis of anti-Semitism for centuries. For instance, the readings have fueled programs in which Jews were raped and murdered at the hands of marauders fed by the notion that Jews killed Jesus.
The priests are the only ones who are aware of the church’s new teachings about that part of the Scripture, said Sister Rose, because they do not think to read it aloud, in introduction to the Scripture.
“Priests are willing to do it, but they need a nudge,” she added.