“When a righteous person dies it is as though all are considered to be his relatives.” The talmudic rabbis never imagined that those words would one day describe a pope. Yet that’s precisely the legacy of Pope John Paul II, who reached out to all mankind with a message of human dignity, peace and reconciliation.
Having first met the future pope in Warsaw in 1967, when he was still known as Karol Wojtyla, I am convinced that his weltanschauung, or worldview, was shaped by having grown up a few miles from the hell on earth that was Auschwitz, the graveyard of my grandparents and other members of my family.
As a Holocaust survivor, I was touched by Wojtyla’s sensitivity to the Shoah and its lessons for the preservation of civilization.
When he was pope, he never forgot and never let the world forget. In his travels to European countries with decimated Jewish populations he would affirm “anti-Semitism as the greatest sin against humanity.”
While President Ronald Reagan was the political force behind communism’s downfall, it was John Paul, traumatized by communism’s suppression of freedom and religion, who provided the spiritual authority: His message to “be not afraid” inspired the oppressed masses to bring down the walls of tyranny.
Similarly, in my frequent Appeal of Conscience missions behind the Iron Curtain, my favorite prayer, Adon Olam, with its last line, “Adonai li v’lo ira” — “God is with me, I shall not fear,” fortified me in dealing with oppressive regimes.
On my return from China in 1986 I brought the pope greetings from his flock, and he warmly welcomed me as “my nuncio from China.”
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation and I could always count on the John Paul’s blessings and encouragement for the international peace and tolerance conferences we organized in Bern, Istanbul and Vienna to energize religious leaders in the Balkans to halt bloodshed and bring about reconciliation.
John Paul was a trailblazer. He was the first pope to enter a synagogue, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and establish diplomatic ties with the State of Israel. But it was his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem that stands out.
For 2,000 years Christians saw the destruction of the Temple as God’s punishment of the Jewish people. John Paul prayed at the Kotel. As he put a note into one of its nooks and did teshuvah, or repentance, for the Catholic Church’s wrongs against the Jewish people, a viewer could not help but realize the social and theological significance of his actions.
He was telling the world that a new age was on the horizon, one in which Jew and Christian could live side by side, respecting each other’s differences and together helping to perfect an imperfect world.
In this spirit, John Paul gathered Christian, Jews, Muslims and members of other faith communities in Assisi in January 2002 for a Day of Prayer for Peace in the World. I heard him confront the scourge of terrorism when he said that “to offend against man is, most certainly, to offend against God. There is no religious goal which can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man.”
The world mourns the loss of a deeply spiritual and righteous person who humbled himself before God and man like few other leaders in history. In one of our final meetings, the pope realized it was Friday afternoon and was nearing Shabbat. As I excused myself, he looked at me and said, smiling, “Ich wunsche Ihnen Shabbat Shalom” — “I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.”
As we mourn the loss of John Paul II, a friend of the Jewish people, we bid him shalom. Peace be with you and the glorious legacy you have given this world.
(Rabbi Arthur Schneier is president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue in New York City.)
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.