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Historic Meeting Between Pope and Delegation of World Jewish Leaders

March 15, 1979
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Pope John Paul II told a 24-member delegation of world Jewish leaders Monday that he hoped “the city of Jerusalem will be effectively guaranteed as a center of harmony for the followers of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, for whom the city is a revered place of devotions.”

Observers noted that the Pope’s remarks in a private meeting with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) was the first time a Papal statement had omitted the phrase “with international guarantees” in regard to the holy places in Jerusalem. The IJCIC comprises live organizations: the Synagogue Council of America, American Jewish Committee, World Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation league of B’nai B’rith, and the Israel interreligious Council. A similar papal audience was held by Pope Paul VI four years ago with a smaller IJCIC delegation.

During his meeting Monday, Pope John Paul II said he intended “to do everything in my power for the peace of that land (Israel) which is as holy for you as it is for us.” In his weekly address to the crowd at St. Peter’s Square last Sunday, the Pope had noted he was “closely following the new endeavors for a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis, hoping that this can be assured everywhere, in just consideration of the rights and legitimate aspirations of all peoples concerned.”

The Pope’s one hour audience with the Jewish leaders from the United States, Israel, Europe and Latin America received front-page attention from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper. The newspaper carried the full text of the Pope’s remarks as well as the statement by Philip M. Klutznick, president of the World Jewish Congress, who led the delegation.

As members of the IJCIC pointed out at a press conference following the audience, the major significance of the meeting was the fact that it took place so soon in Pope John Paul II’s papacy. The attention given to the meeting by L’Osservatore Romano tends to confirm the fact that the Vatican wishes to follow the path opened by Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI in improved Catholic-Jewish relations.


Committee members all spoke of the warmth and informality of Pope John Paul II. He greeted each of his Jewish guests with a handshake and a few words in their native language. Some members chatted in Polish with the Pope.

Rabbi Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who represented the WJC at the meeting, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the Pope was exchanging a few cordial words with him when he was called by his secretary for formal introductions. The Pope whispered to Siegman, “OK., I didn’t meet you” and dashed to the front of the room.


In his statement, Klutznick stressed the improvement that has come about in Catholic-Jewish relations as a result of the Nostra Aetate, promulgated by the Vatican Council in 1965 and the Catholic guidelines of 1975. Also mentioned was the need to continue the fight against all forms of anti-Semitism, the concerns for Soviet Jewry, the fundamental Jewish bond with Israel, and the positive results of ongoing work in revising both Catholic and Jewish school texts to eliminate unfavorable mutual stereotypes.

In reply, the Pope’s address was rich with positive, references to these two essential documents on Catholic-Jewish relations. Robbi Marc Tanenbaum, the AJCommittee’s director of interreligious affairs, sold after words, “Today the guidelines and suggestions document received official endorsement by the Pope.”

All the representatives agreed that the Pope had reaffirmed his commitment to dialogue. John Paul II emphasized the passages in the “guidelines” that say Christians should “strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience, “adding, “I believe that both sides must continue their strong efforts to overcome the difficulties of the past, so as to fulfill God’s commandment of love….

In condemning anti-Semitism, the Pope linked it to a more general “repudiation” by the Catholic Church, “in principle and in practice, of all such violations of human rights wherever they may occur throughout the world. “Human rights is to be a main theme in the Pope’s first encyclical, to be released Thursday.


At the close of his speech, Pope John Paul II mentioned, “how often both Jews and Christians pray to God with the same prayers taken from the book which we both consider to be the word of God.” He added.

“It is for Him to give to both religious communities, so near to each other, that reconciliation and effective love which are at the same time his command and his gift. In this sense, I believe, each time that Jews recite the Shema Israel, each time that Christians recall the First and Second great Commandments, we are by God’s grace, brought nearer to each other. “The final words of the Pope to his Jewish visitors were.”Shalom, shalom.”

Siegman told the JTA “Perhaps we shouldn’t strain interpretation by lending an exaggerated. significance to each word spoken by the Pope. The real significance of this meeting lies in his having accepted to hold one so early. Before, his attitude to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue was a question mark. Now we know that he considers it important. Clearly we cannot overcome all differences overnight, but we know that he will encourage dialogue.”

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