ROME, Jan. 18 (JTA) — Despite ups and downs over the years, Pope John Paul II has made bettering relations with Jews a key platform of his 26-year papacy. On Tuesday, an international group of more than 100 rabbis, cantors and other Jewish leaders from all streams of Judaism thanked him for his efforts during a special private audience at the Vatican. Dressed in white and seated in an upholstered wheeled chair, the 84-year-old pontiff gave the group an enthusiastic welcome in the ornate Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace. In his remarks, the pope noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Vatican’s landmark Nostra Aetate declaration, which rejected the charge that Jews collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus. “May this be an occasion for renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation in the service of building a world ever more firmly based on respect for the divine image in every human being,” he said. “Upon all of you, I invoke the abundant blessings of the Almighty and, in particular, the gift of peace. Shalom aleichem.” The group — which organizers said was the largest Jewish delegation to have a private audience with a pope — came to the Vatican under the auspices of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes interfaith understanding. “You have defended Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and during your pontificate,” Pave the Way president and founder Gary Krupp of New York told the pontiff. Krupp has had earlier dealings with the Vatican and was awarded a papal knighthood in 2000 for his support of a Catholic health care facility in Italy. Most members of the delegation were from the United States, but there also were Israeli rabbis and officials, including the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, as well as Jews from various other countries including France, Italy, India, Canada and Croatia. “We are a vast cross-section of Jewish leaders who wanted to say thanks to the pope for what he has done for Israel and the Jewish people,” Krupp told JTA. He described the half-hour audience as “just marvelous” and said the pope appeared to be “strong, healthy, animated and aware.” “This man is strong,” he said. The rabbis collectively blessed the pope, and the dozen cantors in the group — who had given a concert in Rome’s Great Synagogue the night before — chanted the Shehecheyanu prayer as the delegates and their family members moved forward to shake the pope’s hand. Each guest received a special medal emblazoned with the word “shalom.” Tuesday’s long-planned audience coincided with ongoing controversy over the Holocaust role of Pope Pius XII, and in particular over recent revelations that the Vatican tried to keep hold of some Jewish children who were baptized to save them from the Nazis. None of this debate, however, marred the festive atmosphere of the audience. “This is the first time in history that rabbis representing all branches of Judaism from all over the world have come together to collectively thank Pope John Paul II and the church for all they have done to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect between Jews and Catholics,” Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Secaucus, N.J., said in a statement. Bemporad noted that John Paul became the first pontiff to visit a synagogue, issued many condemnations of anti-Semitism and apologized for earlier church policy and sins against Jews carried out by Catholics. He presided over the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, and in 2000 made an emotional pilgrimage to Israel. “In the history of the world, the last 40 years will be seen as the most revolutionary and significant in terms of progress in the Jewish-Catholic relationship,” Bemporad said. “No pope has done as much or cared as much about creating a brotherly relationship between Catholics and Jews as Pope John Paul II. “For me, it’s simply revolutionary,” he said.