Though a staunch conservative on most Catholic issues, Pope John Paul II made bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a centerpiece of his policy and took revolutionary strides toward this goal during his more than 26-year reign. The pope repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust on many occasions, presided over the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and met frequently with Jewish religious and lay leaders. To be sure, lingering tensions and unresolved issues remained. But in general, most Jewish observers say the Polish-born pontiff, who died Saturday night at age 84 after a lengthy illness, will be remembered as the friendliest pope ever toward the Jews.
“Pope John Paul II was a man of peace, a friend of the Jewish people, who worked to bring about historic reconciliation between the peoples and to renew diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican at the end of 1993,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday. “Yesterday the world lost one of the most important leaders of our generation, whose great contribution toward reconciliation, unity among peoples, understanding and tolerance will remain with us for many years.”
“It is safe to say that more change for the better took place in his 27-year papacy than in the nearly 2,000 years before,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in a tribute.
World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman said that John Paul II “reached across millennial divides to promote mutual respect and understanding. His lessons and accomplishments are a legacy for Catholics, Jews and all humanity.”
Rabbi Jack Bemporad was one of more than 100 rabbis and cantors who met with the pope in January to thank him for his commitment.
“No pope has done as much or cared as much about creating a brotherly relationship between Catholics and Jews as Pope John Paul II,” Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Secaucus, N.J., said at the time.
“For me, it’s simply revolutionary,” added Bemporad. “I believe Pope John Paul II will be considered a great healer in the relationship between Catholics and Jews.”
Karol Jozef Wojtyla, then the 58-year-old archbishop of Krakow, was elected to the papacy in October 1978. The first pope from Poland and the first non-Italian to sit on the papal throne in more than 450 years, he took the name John Paul II to honor his immediate predecessor, who died after only three weeks in office.
Wojtyla assumed the papacy just 13 years after the Vatican’s historic Nostra Aetate declaration opened the way toward Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The declaration, issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII, condemned anti-Semitism and for the first time officially repudiated the age-old assertion that the “perfidious Jews” were collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
John Paul’s papacy built on this, and in Jewish terms it was marked by dramatic “firsts,” starting with the pontiff’s own personal history. Born in 1920 in the town of Wadowice, near Krakow, he was, in short, an eyewitness both to the Holocaust and to the oppressive and often anti-Semitic policies of communism.
Wojtyla grew up at a time when Poland was the heartland of European Jewry. The country’s 3.5 million Jews represented 10 percent of Poland’s overall population. Wadowice itself was more than 25 percent Jewish, and the future pope had Jewish friends, neighbors and classmates.
Half of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Shoah were Polish, including the future pope’s friends and neighbors. Wojtyla himself worked in a Nazi slave labor camp and studied for the priesthood in secret.
After World War II, the discovery of what had happened at Auschwitz, only a few miles from his hometown, marked Wojtyla for life.
As pope, John Paul referred to the 20th century as “the century of the Shoah,” and it was highly symbolic that in 1979, on his first visit back to Poland after his election, he knelt in prayer at Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the Jews killed there.
Throughout his reign, John Paul repeatedly recalled the Holocaust and condemned anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity. On his more than 100 trips around the globe, he sought to meet with Jewish leaders. He also issued unprecedented expressions of contrition for past Christian hostility and violence toward Jews.
The most dramatic of the pope’s many meetings with Jews took place in April 1986, when he crossed the Tiber River to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship since Peter.
After warmly embracing Rome’s chief rabbi, the pope spoke of the “irrevocable covenant” between God and the Jews.
With Judaism, he said, “we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it may be said that you are our elder brothers.”
At the end of 1993 the pope took another unprecedented step, overseeing the formal establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, 45 years after the founding of the Jewish state.
“The pope has both understood what Israel means to the Jewish people and thus the importance of the establishment of full relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel to which he lent his personal weight,” Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs, has said. “It is no exaggeration to say that the successful conclusion of those negotiations were thanks to his personal involvement and even intervention.”
The pope’s historic visit to Israel in March 2000 marked a culmination of these policies. His visit was formulated as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to mark the beginning of Christianity’s third millennium, but it brimmed with significance for Jews as well.
He visited Yad Vashem, and at Jerusalem’s Western Wall he bowed his head in prayer and slipped a typed, signed note into one of the cracks between the stones.
“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,” the note said.
Since that historic visit, the world has been rocked by terrorism and war, and the eruption of the Palestinian intifada plunged the Middle East into violence. Also, what some observers call a “new anti-Semitism” linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has erupted in what the pope liked to call “Christian” Europe.
But several issues still dog Catholic-Jewish relations and continue to provoke clashes from time to time.
These include differences over what can be called “historical memory” — for example, over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, whom the Vatican wants to beatify but whom critics accuse of failing to speak out to save Jews during the Shoah.
There also is a continuing internal debate within the Catholic hierarchy about whether the church as an institution is responsible for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, or whether responsibility rests with individuals.
Outstanding differences on bilateral issues, as well as broader differences over Middle East politics, also have clouded relations with Israel and are the focus of protracted negotiations. These matters include taxes and the legal status of church institutions as well as questions of visas and residency permits for Christian clergy in Israel.
Looming above all is the question of whether John Paul’s proactive teachings about Jews will endure, and whether they will trickle down to the world’s 1 billion Catholics.
During his audience with the rabbis and cantors in January, John Paul noted that 2005 marks the 40th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration and urged “renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation.”
But Jewish observers have expressed concern that John Paul’s successor may not have the same commitment.
“You’re not going to get anybody with his sensitivity,” Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said in January. “The fear is, whatever you’ve got done can be undone.”
Rabbi A. James Rudin, the AJCommittee’s senior adviser on interreligious affairs and a visiting professor at St. Leo University, also considers the perpetuation of John Paul’s policies on Jews as “a major challenge for the post-John Paul II church.”
“To have his church retreat from the gains John Paul II has achieved in building mutual respect and understanding between Catholics and Jews would represent a huge setback and an insult to this remarkable pope, who will be remembered in Jewish history as the ‘greatest’ pontiff in the 2000-year history of Christianity,” Rudin, who met with John Paul 10 times, has said.
For their part, Vatican officials say the pope’s legacy should be safe, noting that the sea-changes wrought by Nostra Aetate in 1965 and by Vatican documents and pronouncements issued throughout John Paul’s papacy are enshrined as official church teaching.
“The whole Catholic church stands for these changes, not only Pope John Paul II,” the Rev. Norbert Hofmann, secretary for the Holy See’s Commission for Religions Relations with the Jews, told JTA in 2003. But, he added, “it remains the task of the whole church to continue these efforts, and we must do everything so that the course will trickle down to all levels.”
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.