ROME (JTA) — Pope John Paul II, who made fostering Catholic-Jewish relations and remembering the Holocaust cornerstones of his papacy, was beatified at the Vatican.
John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, officiated at Sunday’s ceremony — the last step before canonization, or sainthood — before an estimated 1 million faithful and a live broadcast audience of millions more around the world.
The ceremony took place just hours before Yom Hashoah, when Jews around the world remember the Holocaust in prayer and ceremonies.
The Polish-born John Paul, who died in April 2005, served as pontiff for more than 26 years.
Born in 1920, John Paul had Jewish friends growing up and witnessed destruction during the Holocaust. Throughout his papacy, he reached out to Jews and met frequently with Jewish representatives, including Holocaust survivors, and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.
In 1986 he became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he visited Rome’s main synagogue, where he embraced the Rome chief rabbi and referred to Jews as Christianity’s "elder brothers in faith."
During his reign, Israel and the Vatican established formal relations, and he made a pilgrimage to Israel in 2000, during which he prayed at the Western Wall.
"On this day of his beatification, it is only appropriate that we celebrate this leader who made a revolutionary impact in Catholic-Jewish relations within our lifetime, and that we of all faiths continue to learn from him," Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey and the John Paul II Center for
Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, wrote in the Huffington Post.
At John Paul’s funeral, crowds called for him to be made a saint immediately. But Pope Benedict has come under criticism from some quarters for fast-tracking the sainthood process, waiving the usual five-year waiting period before it can begin.
Some critics also have called into question John Paul’s handling of the widespread sex abuse scandal involving priests and children that erupted during his reign.