The concern of Jews throughout the world over Pope John XXIII was reflected here in the numerous messages received during the weekend by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, from Jewish communities and leaders in many countries joining in prayer for the Pope’s recovery, and expressing grief over his state of health.
Among the messages received was one from President Schneor Zalman Shazar of Israel, and another from Chief Rabbi Itzhak Nissim of Israel. President Shazar said in his cable to the Vatican that Pope John’s life has “the blessings of Zion” because he is a “moral fortress, a tower of goodwill to mankind and a beacon of light for the promotion of world peace.”
Rabbi Nissim’s message declared: “We are grieved to hear of your illness. Many here wish you speedy recovery and long life, so that you may have the strength to continue upon the road you paved toward understanding between men, and to continue to work for peace on earth.”
Dr. Nahum Goldmann, in his capacity of president of the World Jewish Congress, sent a message from London to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, stating: “Deeply moved by the disturbing news of the health of His Holiness, Pope John XXIII. Respectfully request in the name of the World Jewish Congress and of Jewish communities and organizations in 65 countries, which are affiliated with it, that Your Eminence may be good enough to transmit to His Holiness our deep concern and most sincere wishes for his well-being.”
(In New York, the Board of Rabbis called upon its members to offer prayers for Pope John XXIII. The call emphasized that Pope John “has given heart and courage to all men of good will,” and quickened the hope of people everywhere for world peace. “Let us pray that the Almighty may grant unto him many more years in which to serve as the good shepherd of his church, and enrich and bless mankind with the greatness and nobility of his spirit,” the Board of Rabbis urged. In Argentina, prayers were held in synagogues throughout the country.)
POPE JOHN’S GREAT INTEREST IN JEWS WAS EXPRESSED IN ACTION
Several Popes had expressed interest in Jews, but none matched Pope John XXIII in embodying that interest in specific acts. As Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, he was apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey, based in Istanbul, during World War II. When told of the plight of several thousand Jews, including a number of children, slated for deportation to death at Auschwitz, he instantly made available thousands of baptismal certificates for use for the doomed Jews, without conditions. Thus thousands were saved from the Nazi furnaces.
Early in his papacy, he ordered the elimination from the Good Friday liturgy of the reference to “perfidious Jews,” which he knew was offensive to Jews and which, it was understood, he considered not a doctrinal matter but a carry-over from the polemical history of the past.
He had strong personal feelings about the need to remove the bases of animosity and hostility between religious communities, particularly in regard to Jews, who, he was known to feel, had a special role in “salvation history.” This was reflected again during the recent Good Friday when, according to press reports, the celebrant of the mass at the Vatican, either from habit or through use of a missal not brought up-to-date, again made a reference to “perfidious Jews.” The Pope halted the service and had it repeated in its entirety, with that reference omitted.
This attitude was exemplified again when, in January 1959, he appointed Cardinal Bea as president of the secretariat for promoting Christian unity for the Ecumenical Council. Cardinal Bea’s commission has within it a smaller group with specific responsibilities to improve relationships between Catholics and Jews by removing inherited doctrinal sources of animosity through changes in Catholic teachings and liturgy. The Pope was known to have been kept acquainted with everything this commission was doing, and Cardinal Bea consistently had strong support from the Pope for the work of this commission.
His assistance to Jewish rescue missions earned him congratulations on his election as Pope from the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Dr. Herzog. He received further praise in October 1960, when he gave an audience to 130 members of the United Jewish Appeal, who presented him with a scroll. He said to them in greeting, “I am Joseph, your brother,” a reference to the Old Testament story of Joseph.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.