For Jews around the world, even skeptics of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, it was hard not to be moved by two historic moments during Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The first was the sight of the 79-year-old pope staring silently into the eternal flame at the Yad Vashem memorial hall during a ceremony last week honoring victims of the Holocaust.
While many had hoped that he would offer an apology for the church’s silence in the face of the Nazi slaughter, the sight of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church at the somber memorial ceremony moved many to tears.
The second moment came Sunday, when the pope stood again in silence, this time in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
He quietly read a prayer of reconciliation, requesting forgiveness from the God of Abraham for the church’s sins against Jews through the centuries, then slipped it into a crevice of the Wall, as Jews have done for centuries. After instinctively blessing the note with the sign of the cross, the ailing pope returned to touch the stones again, his hand trembling, his eyes closed in contemplation.
Given the centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, many were struck by the image of the leader of 1 billion Roman Catholics, dressed in flowing white robe and golden crucifix, asking forgiveness from the God of Abraham at the site Jews yearned for during 2,000 years of exile.
“I was very moved,” Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, told JTA after escorting the pope at the Wall.
“It was something beyond history. Not only did the pope touch the Western Wall, but the Wall reached out and touched him and all of us.”
When John Paul left the region Sunday, Israeli officials responsible for the trip breathed a collective sigh of relief. The incredibly sensitive visit passed without any political blunders.
“Operation Old Friend,” perhaps the most complicated security operation ever mounted for a visitor to Israel, had been implemented to near perfection.
Many Israelis felt they had made a new friend in John Paul. Israel’s leading Hebrew newspapers took an overwhelmingly positive view of the papal journey as a tangible sign of the dramatic changes in Jewish-Catholic relations in the years since Cardinal Karol Wojtyla ascended to the papacy in 1978 and took the name John Paul II. Yediot Achronot, the most popular daily, devoted a two-page centerfold to a photo of the pope at the Wall.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the pope’s visit to the Wall and Yad Vashem “will remain engraved in the consciousness of the entire world as a most important step toward historic reconciliation between the Christian world and Judaism.”
“I am sure that there will be more problems in our contacts with the Catholic Church, but this visit will make dealing with those differences and disputes much more comfortable from a diplomatic and international perspective,” Barak said.
As the pope departed Sunday night on an El Al 747 with the name “Jerusalem” on its nose, interfaith activists realized his would be a hard act to follow.
“We have come very far, but that does not mean there is still not a long way to go,” said Melchior, who announced during the Western Wall visit his intention to launch a new interfaith dialogue forum. “I know that there are more and more Christians and people in the Catholic Church, as well as Muslim leaders, who want to join in a different kind of dialogue.”
This, however, was not clearly evident from the pope’s visit.
Before visiting the Western Wall, John Paul toured the Temple Mount, which houses the Al-Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.
There he heard Palestinian grievances about Israel’s behavior toward them in eastern Jerusalem since the Jewish state took control of the entire city in the 1967 Six-Day War.
He also met the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the leading Islamic cleric in the city, whose inflammatory comments published that day accused the Jews of exaggerating the Holocaust to win world sympathy. The pope’s spokesman said John Paul was unaware of those remarks.
Earlier during the trip, the mufti refused to attend a Jewish-Christian-Islamic summit. A second-tier Islamic representative stormed out of last week’s meeting after lashing out at Israeli policy toward Palestinians in Jerusalem. As he listened to competing Jewish and Islamic claims to Jerusalem, the pope held his head in his hands.
Throughout his pilgrimage, John Paul skillfully traversed the religious and political chasms that sever the Holy City. He kept himself above attempts from both sides to politicize the visit, and he issued universal calls for peace wherever he set foot.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti Defamation League’s Israel office and a veteran interfaith activist, said the difficulties in finding common ground with Islamic leaders demonstrated the importance of pressing ahead with interfaith work.
“This has been a boost for interfaith relations and an inspiration for those of us who work in this field,” said Rosen. “But it is not going to change the reality we will have to contend with, which is not only a politicization of religion that tends to work against interreligious activities,” but also the “cultural context in which people perceive themselves as exclusive possessors of the truth.”
Yet as the pope left Israel in the twilight of his papacy, it remained unclear whether the deep personal commitment to reconciliation with the Jewish people would continue under his successor. The Polish-born pope was personally motivated by witnessing of the Holocaust as a young priest during World War II.
It is unlikely, said Rosen, that the next pope will be as committed.
“Nevertheless I think he has set down solid foundations for a very healthy relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” he said. “It is impossible today to have a serious position in the Catholic Church and to express an anti-Judaic opinion.”
Part of the power of the pope’s pilgrimage was that it sent a message of reconciliation to Christians all over the world.
Almost every day during his stay, the Pope conducted a mass, and church harmonies resonated throughout the Holy Land.
It climaxed at Korazim, the site where Christians believe Jesus preached to crowds overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
About 100,000 people attended a service some pundits called the “Catholic Woodstock,” cheering the pop-star clergyman with chants of “John Paul II, We Love You.” It was a strong sign of the pope’s ability to deliver his religious message using modern means.
Indeed, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, the messages affirming the Jewish state and condemning the Holocaust would not be lost on the pope’s followers.
“We are trying to get rid of 2,000 years of distrust and mistrust and we are getting there,” said Rudin. “This trip is going to move it forward, not so much for Jews but for 1 billion Catholics around the world for whom this man has enormous charisma, even in the twilight of his papacy. He has expended enormous moral and spiritual capital here in Israel.”
For Marcel Dubois, a Dominican monk who served on the pontifical council for relations with Judaism for 15 years, it was an overwhelming week.
Dubois, a philosophy lecturer at the Hebrew University who has lived in Jerusalem since 1962, felt the visit, and especially the ceremony at Yad Vashem, was a validation of all his own efforts to bridge the Jewish-Christian gulf.
“The most important message was that Jerusalem is the pinnacle of relations between the faiths, because it is the only place that we are sure God touched,” said Dubois. “If people in Jerusalem can learn to respect one another, then this will be the basis for peace between peoples all over the world.”
Dubois was encouraged that Israelis had internalized these positive messages.
The “ambassadors of resentment,” he added, who preferred to focus on issues such as the pope’s failure to condemn the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, “were proved wrong.”
“The pope’s personality brings together all of the good things between Christians and Jews,” he said. “His pilgrimage was the first meeting between the people of Israel and the heart of the church.”
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.