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Milestones in Pope John Paul Ii’s Life

April 4, 2005
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During his papacy, Pope John Paul II repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism and met frequently with Jewish religious and lay leaders. He also took certain steps that Jews criticized. Here are a few of the milestones in his relations with Jews and Israel.

1920s-1930s — Karol Jozef Wojtyla is born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. As he grows up, he has Jewish friends, neighbors and classmates. 1940s — He works in a Nazi slave labor camp, studies secretly for the priesthood in Nazi-occupied Poland and witnesses Nazi persecution of Jews. In January 1945, he aids a starving Jewish girl who had just been liberated from a Nazi forced labor camp.

1950s-1970s — He witnesses anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic policy by the Communist regime in Poland, including the forced exodus of some 20,000 Jews in 1968.

Oct. 16, 1978 — He is elected the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.

June 1979 — During his first return trip to Communist Poland, he prays at Auschwitz and pays homage to Holocaust victims.

April 13, 1986 — John Paul crosses the Tiber River to visit the main synagogue in Rome. He embraces Rome’s chief rabbi, describes an “irrevocable covenant” between God and the Jews and declares that Jews are Christians’ older brothers.

June 25, 1987 — The pope angers Jews by granting an audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, sparking a crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Dec. 28, 1993 — The Vatican and Israel establish full diplomatic ties.

Oct. 31, 1997 — In a major speech, the pope says Christians failed during the Holocaust.

March 16, 1998 — The Vatican issues “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” a major document on the Holocaust. Its aim was to promote “an awareness of past injustices by Christians to the Jewish people” among “Catholics in those countries that were far removed by geography and history from the scene of the Shoah (Holocaust), and encourage their participation in the present efforts of the Holy See to promote throughout the Church a new spirit in Catholic-Jewish relations.” However, it disappointed many Jews by defending the wartime behavior of Pope Pius XII and for failing to “make the linkage between 1,000 years of the Christian teaching of contempt of Jews and Judaism with the anti-Jewish climate in Christian Europe, where the Shoah took place.”

1999 — A six-member team of Catholic and Jewish historians is appointed to review published Vatican documentation on the role of the Holy See and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.

March 12, 2000 — On what he declares a “day of request for forgiveness” for Catholics, John Paul asks forgiveness for the past sins of the Church, including its treatment of Jews.

March 20-26, 2000 — Marking the Christian millennium, the pope makes a pilgrimage to Israel. He visits holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories, visits Yad Vashem and prays at the Western Wall, where he slips a note into the cracks, reading: “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.”

Sept. 3, 2000 — The pope beatifies Pope Pius IX, the 19th-century pontiff who was the last pope to keep Jews in the ghetto and who was behind the 1858 kidnaping of a young Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized as a baby. On the same day, however, he beatified Pope John XXIII, the much-beloved pontiff who died in 1963 and whose five-year reign marked a turning point in church history and in Jewish-Catholic relations.

July 2001 — The commission formed to review published Vatican documentation on the role of the Holy See and Pope Pius XII during the Shoah suspends work. It has been denied the full access to the Holy See’s wartime archives, and it needs that access to answer questions raised during its research. Jews are unhappy at moves to beatify Pius XII.

February 2003 — The Vatican opens a number of documents relating to the Vatican’s relations with prewar Nazi Germany to the public. These include diplomatic documents from 1922 to 1939, held in the Vatican’s Secret Archives, when Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII, served as Vatican ambassador in Berlin and Vatican Secretary of State.

Jan. 18, 2005 — John Paul holds an audience with more than 100 rabbis and cantors from the United States and other countries, who thank him for his efforts in bettering relations between Catholics and Jews.

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