ROME (Oct. 13)
Twenty-five years ago this month, white smoke billowed from a chimney above the Vatican to signal the election of a new pope — Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old archbishop of Krakow, the first pontiff ever chosen from Poland and the first non-Italian to sit on the papal throne in 456 years.
Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II to honor his immediate predecessor, was slated to mark the silver anniversary of his election on Thursday.
Now 83 and visibly marked by age and illness, he has left a decisive mark on the world, on Catholicism and, in particular, on the long-troubled relations between Catholics and Jews.
Though a staunch conservative on most Catholic and social issues, John Paul II has made bettering Catholic-Jewish relations a centerpiece of his policy, and has taken revolutionary strides throughout his tenure.
Today, despite some lingering tensions and unresolved issues — including conflicting views of the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II — many Jewish observers say John Paul II will be remembered as the best pope the Jews ever had.
Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs, describes John Paul’s contributions to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation as “unique and historic.”
The pope, he said, “has had the courage and vision to take the Catholic-Jewish relationship on to a new level of deeper dialogue, in which the relationship with the Jewish people is seen within the Catholic world as being something that is at the root and heart of Christian identity itself.”
John Paul II was elected to the papacy only 13 years after the Vatican’s historic Nostra Aetate declaration opened the way toward Jewish-Catholic dialogue. That declaration, issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, condemned anti-Semitism and for the first time officially repudiated the age-old assertion that the “perfidious Jews” were collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
John Paul’s papacy expanded on the Nostra Aetate, and in Jewish terms it has been marked by dramatic “firsts” — starting with the pontiff’s own personal history. Perhaps most importantly, he was an eyewitness both to the Holocaust and to the oppressive and often anti-Semitic policies of totalitarian communism.
Born in 1920 in the southern Polish town of Wadowice, near Krakow, Wojtyla grew up at a time when Poland was the rich, vital heartland of European Jewry. The country’s 3.5 million Jews represented 10 percent of Poland’s overall population. Wadowice itself was more than 25 percent Jewish, and the future pope had Jewish friends, neighbors and classmates.
During World War II, Poland became the Nazis’ main killing field. Half of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Polish Jews — including the future pope’s friends and neighbors. Wojtyla himself worked in a Nazi slave labor camp and studied for the priesthood clandestinely.
After the war, the future pope’s discovery of what had happened at Auschwitz, located only a few miles from his home, “marked him for life and would eventually make him, perhaps despite himself, a revolutionary figure in the Catholic Church,” James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews — A History,” wrote in a recent article in the Boston Globe.
Given this history, it was highly symbolic that in 1979, on John Paul’s first visit to Poland after his election as pope, he knelt in prayer at Auschwitz-Birkenau as a sign of commemoration for the Jews killed there.
At an ecumenical prayer meeting in Assisi, Italy, in 1993, the pope told a Jewish participant that “the memory of the Shoah must animate our teaching and preaching for the sake of future generations.”
Throughout his reign, John Paul repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity, and on his more than 100 trips around the globe he sought to meet with Jewish leaders. He also issued unprecedented contrition for past Christian hostility and violence toward Jews.
The most dramatic of his many meetings with Jews took place in April 1986, when he left the Vatican and crossed the Tiber River to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship since the apostle Peter, considered the first pope.
At the synagogue, the pope spoke of the “irrevocable covenant” between God and the Jews. With Judaism, he said, “we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it may be said that you are our elder brothers.”
At the end of 1993, the pope took another unprecedented step, overseeing the formal establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican, 45 years after the founding of the Jewish state.
The pope’s visit to Israel in March 2000 was historic. He visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and at the Western Wall he bowed his head in prayer and slipped a prayer note into the cracks between the stones.
In the note, the pope wrote, “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.”
But the pope’s Mideast visit was not without its low points. When he visited Syria, some criticized the pope for remaining passive when President Bashar Assad engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric. The pope also angered some Israelis with remarks they considered too pro-Palestinian.
Since the pope’s historic visit, however, the emergence of what some observers have termed a “new European anti-Semitism” — linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — has dogged Catholic-Jewish relations in what the pope calls “Christian Europe.”
Other issues also have continued to pester Catholic-Jewish ties, including differences over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, whom the Vatican wants to beatify but whom critics accuse of ignoring pleas to save Jews during the Holocaust.
There also is an ongoing internal debate within the Catholic hierarchy as to whether the church as an institution is responsible for anti-Semitism, or whether responsibility for the social ill rests with individuals.
As the pope’s health visibly declines, observers are questioning whether his positive teachings regarding Jews will endure and whether they will trickle down to the more than one billion Catholics around the globe.
“This is a major challenge for the post-John Paul II church,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the AJCommittee’s senior adviser on interreligious affairs. “To have his church retreat from the gains John Paul II has achieved in building mutual respect and understanding between Catholics and Jews would represent a huge setback, and an insult to this remarkable pope.”
The Rev. Norbert Hofmann, secretary for the Vatican’s Commission for Religions Relations with the Jews, says the pope’s legacy should be safe.
“The whole Catholic Church stands for these changes” regarding Jews, Hofmann said, “not only Pope John Paul II. Of course, he was and is the most visible agent of these changes and one of his most important pastoral activities was the reconciliation with the Jewish people.”
There are “irritations” in Catholic-Jewish ties from time to time, he said, “but they can’t stop the process of reconciliation set by the church and the pope.”