Pope John Paul II fundamentally changed relations between the Catholic church and the Jewish people. He did so by trying to understand and respect Jews not only with his mind, but with his heart as well. For nearly 2,000 years, the theology of contempt espoused by the church fomented violent anti-Semitism. Through sincere introspection and courageous public example John Paul recognized that religiously based hatred of Jews was wrong, and began to actively correct its failings.
As a young priest, Karol Wojtyla refused to baptize an orphaned Jewish child who had been adopted by a Catholic family. Sixty years later, this sensitivity imbued in so many of his disciples has translated into a renewed commitment to publicize information about Jewish children who were baptized during and after the Holocaust.
In 1979, after returning to Poland for the first time since his election to the papacy, John Paul prayed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Walking through the camp, a living memorial to those who perished, the pope remarked that it was impossible for a person to pass such a sight “with indifference.”
During the latter part of John Paul’s papacy, as a result of coordination with the World Jewish Congress, committed members of the Catholic clergy have begun helping Jewish communities locate and restore Holocaust-era mass graves in towns and villages throughout Eastern Europe.
In 1986, John Paul became the first pope in history to visit a synagogue, signaling that Jews were no longer to be persecuted for their beliefs and that Jews were to be respected by churchgoers as a people of faith.
This respect for one another as children of G-d is manifest in cities around the world, where local rabbis, priests and bishops work together to promote mutual respect and understanding in their communities.
On Nov. 11, 1993, several years of negotiations concluded with a meeting in the pope’s private study. There, in the presence of Edgar Bronfman, Edward Cardinal Cassidy and me, John Paul declared that anti-Semitism was a sin against God and man.
He also pledged to relocate a disputed convent from the grounds of Auschwitz. Finally, he assured us that by the end of the year, the Holy See would establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.
Soon thereafter, the Holy See and the State of Israel exchanged ambassadors. The convent at Auschwitz was transformed into an interreligious study center.
Now, a decade later, the Vatican has established a formal relationship with the chief rabbinate of Israel and has condemned anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.
John Paul confronted wrong in the world and made the pain of others his own. By doing so with the Jewish community, by asking forgiveness for the church’s sins of the past and by preaching a doctrine designed to right previous wrongs, he brought our communities to a moment in history when we could work together to fulfill a common human purpose, bringing food to the hungry, shelter to the poor and medicine to the sick.
On May 22, 2003, John Paul welcomed a delegation from the World Jewish Congress for what would be our final meeting. It was there that he outlined a vision for the future of relations between our communities.
“In light of the rich common religious heritage we share, we can consider the present as a challenging opportunity for joint endeavors of peace and justice in our world,” he said. “This sort of practical cooperation between Christians and Jews requires courage and vision.”
It was understood then, as it is now, that in the public world of humanitarian endeavors, communication among religious communities enhances our common purpose. As Jewish scholars have maintained, the pope taught that it is important issues such as peace and justice, and not theological debate, in which we must engage together.
Two years ago, after the Argentine financial crisis, the World Jewish Congress began a program where the Jewish and local Catholic leadership worked together to deliver and administer critical social welfare programs to those hardest hit. Following the success of that example, the World Jewish Congress has joined with cardinals from around the world to embark on a joint effort to help those afflicted by the spread of AIDS in Africa.
Today, we have only begun to realize the full potential of our cooperative relationship.
The one-time student of the Wadowice elementary school and bishop of Krakow transcended millennial divides of race, religion and nationality to deliver a universal message of peace, freedom and the dignity of every human being. His lessons and accomplishments are a legacy for Catholics, Jews and all humanity. Our hope is that we all honor that legacy by building on it for future generations.
Rabbi Israel Singer is chairman of the World Jewish Congress.
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.