The death of Pope John Paul II triggered an unprecedented outpouring of tribute from Jews around the world. Israel’s president and a half-dozen Jewish officials from Europe, the United States and Latin America joined the millions of pilgrims who converged on Rome for his funeral. Synagogues offered special prayers in his honor, and leaders of Jewish organizations and local rabbis hailed him as a champion of Jewish-Catholic relations.
Some commentators went so far as to call him “the Jews’ pope.”
“With the passing of Pope John Paul II, we have lost the strongest advocate for reconciliation for the Jewish people in the history of the Vatican,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared in a statement.
Much of John Paul’s legacy has been enshrined in official church doctrine. But as the College of Cardinals prepared to begin secret deliberations next week to choose a successor, the question remained to what extent John Paul’s exceptionally proactive policy regarding Jews would endure.
“It seems unlikely that the next pope will have the same interest in the church’s relations with the Jews, and the same sense of responsibility in combating Christian anti-Semitism,” professor David Kertzer of Brown University, an expert on papal relations with the Jews, told JTA from Rome.
“John Paul II had an extraordinary biography for a high church official in his early relations with Jews, and of course lived through an extraordinary moment in history,” he said.
Born Karol Wojtyla in the small Polish town of Wadowice, John Paul II, who was 84 when he died April 2, had Jewish friends and neighbors and was an eyewitness to both the Holocaust and totalitarian communism.
As a bishop, he took part in the Second Vatican Council, which modernized aspects of church practice and doctrine. In 1965 the council issued the Nostra Aetate declaration that condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews.
Elected pope in October 1978, John Paul made bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a cornerstone of his papacy. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and met with Jewish leaders and laymen. He also oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.
In one of the most dramatic demonstrations of this effort, in 1986 John Paul crossed the Tiber River to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship. There he warmly embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians.
“This pope in my opinion was probably the most important force for good understanding between faiths that existed in the last generation,” World Jewish Congress chairman Israel Singer, who attended the pope’s funeral, told JTA from Rome. “He was the most important person to turn around the relations between non-Jews and Jews, between Christians and Jews, between Catholics and Jews, and he was personally engaged in this process during his lifetime.”
Against this background, observers considered John Paul’s decision to mention Toaff in his will to be highly significant, seeing it as an indication to his successor not to turn back from John Paul’s path. Toaff and John Paul’s longtime secretary were the only living people mentioned in the will.
“It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews,” Toaff, who is now retired, told the Rome daily La Repubblica. “But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world.”
John Paul, he said, “wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries.”
He said he hoped the next pope would uphold John Paul’s legacy and “do even better.”
But, he added, “it is unlikely that there will be someone else like him. Even if we are optimistic, I see many difficulties in finding a successor of his stature.”
Much of John Paul’s teachings about the Jews have been promulgated as church doctrine and thus technically are official church policy.
But even before John Paul died there were indications that his policies had not been accepted unanimously among church leaders — or that they had trickled down to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
“The most important challenge for Catholic-Jewish relations is to take the historic changes in church teaching concerning Jews, Judaism and Israel from the Olympic heights down to the grass roots,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA some time before John Paul died.
Indeed, Rosen said, “in many parts of the world there are even bishops who are ignorant of the teachings on this subject, let alone the rank and file. Ignorance of this and the concomitant residual anti-Jewish attitudes still prevail in many parts of the Catholic world, and there is still an enormous job to do in this regard.”
Not only that, he said, but “the younger generation of bishops who have not been through the period of the Shoah and were not part of the official transformation of Vatican II do not necessarily appreciate the historical as well as theological imperatives involved.”
Brown University’s Kertzer said he already had noted “backsliding in the last few years when the pope had become infirm and no longer really in control. There has clearly been an important reactionary movement within the church that resents much of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, and with it the sense that the church has a historic problem with anti-Semitism.”
At a January conference in Washington, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major Catholic theologian, affirmed the traditional belief that Christians will want “all men and women, Jewish and Gentile” to “benefit from Christ’s teaching” and convert to Christianity.
Also, Kertzer said, “Even John Paul II was unwilling to criticize any of his papal predecessors, nor directly rebuke past versions of canon law. He was thus unwilling to fully come to terms with the church’s institutional responsibility for anti-Semitism in the past. There is little likelihood at the moment that this history will be seriously revisited by John Paul II’s successor.”
Nonetheless, Jewish leaders hope his legacy will prevail.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, who attended the pope’s funeral, said the unprecedented gathering of world leaders, religious representatives and faithful “really showed the capacity and the potential of a righteous person to be a magnet for pulling the world together.”
Whoever was present at the funeral, he said, “would just have to, in his memory, embrace a legacy of coexistence, a legacy of reconciliation.”
Observers noted that in addition to mentioning Toaff in his will, John Paul also highlighted the Second Vatican Council in his testament. He called it a “great gift” to which the entire church and clergy was indebted, and a “great patrimony” he wished to entrust to future generations of Catholics.
“I hope that there is neither a slowing nor an inversion of the road that was opened by the Second Vatican Council and consolidated by John Paul II in the course of his pontificate,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It was a pontificate characterized by a dialogue relationship with the Jewish world that was very satisfactory, and I hope that in the future this relationship could extend also to the other great monotheistic religion, Islam, and to the secular world.”
(JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this story.)
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