Jewish Journal

Celebrating the Beatification of John Paul II

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

January 17, 2011 | 2:03 am

Jews have no right to register an opinion on whom the Roman Catholic Church beatifies and whom it considers a saint. After all, it is a matter of faith to believing and Roman Catholics and has no theological meaning to Jews.

Nevertheless, this has not stopped us from asserting our disapproval of the efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII, the man who served as Pope during the Holocaust or Pope Pius IX who would not return to his loving parents a Jewish child forcibly kidnapped and baptized by the Church. So if we register our vocal opposition, we also should register our approval.

I want to celebrate the efforts to speed up the beatification of Pope John Paul II, the immediate predecessor of the incumbent Pope Benedict XVI who did so much to transform the world. While I suspect, the process is being speeded up because of his conservative theology and not even for his historic role in delegitimating and defeating Communism and liberating his native homeland of Poland and certainly not because of his decisive role in changing Catholic teaching regarding the Jews, it is important that we recall and emphasize the unique contribution of this very great Pope to Jewish Catholic relations.

Pope John Paul II took the transformations initiated by Pope John XXIII another series of steps further.

A word of biography is in order. John Paul II is probably the first pope who could truthfully say that “some of my best friends are Jewish,” and mean it literally. He was in direct contact with Jews during his pre-priesthood days and knew them from the soccer fields, where he often played on the Jewish side when they were short of a player, to the university and the theater; one local was among his closest friends and remained a friend throughout the pontiff’s long life.

Yaffa Eliach has documented in legendary form that when still a parish priest, Karol Józef Wojtyła refused to baptize Jewish children who had been saved by Polish – Roman Catholic – families when their parents were deported in 1942-43, unless they were informed that their biological parents had been Jews. This was an act of singular integrity and, in fact, it was not quite in keeping with the instructions of the post-war Church that was interested in saving the souls of all people – including, perhaps even especially, Jewish children. It was also an act of courage, as his parishioners must have felt this conversation burdensome.  Allow me to explain.

If you trusted a neighbor with your child’s life and your child had a certain type of appearance, meaning that they did not look “too Jewish” and they were pre-verbal, Jewish parents might ask a Polish family to take care of their child while they were about to be deported. The child could not be told that he or she was Jewish then, as the information would be lethal to the child and also to the family that was sheltering him. If the parents returned, the child might not remember them or even recognize them. Often the child had been treated with love and responded in kind, feeling his/her parents to be strangers who had abandoned him – remember feelings are not logical − and loving his adopted family. Even if the parents survived, the child often wanted to stay put. Even after the war, it became dangerous to reveal to a child that he or she was Jewish as this might lead to the parents being labeled as “Jew lovers” and to their ostracism. So such information was not easily revealed, but Father Wojtyła insisted.

As Pope, John Paul II visited the Roman synagogue and met with the community and its chief rabbi who was attired in the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. In his remarks he said
“All that remains for me now, as at the beginning of my address, is to turn my eyes and my mind to the Lord, to thank Him and praise Him for this joyful meeting and for the good things which are already flowing from it, for the rediscovered brotherhood and for the new and more profound understanding between us here in Rome, and between the Church and Judaism everywhere, in every country, for the benefit of all.’

He recited part of a Psalm in the original Hebrew:
hodû la-Adonai ki tob
ki le-olam hasdô
yomar-na Yisrael
ki le-olam hasdô
yomerû-na yir’è Adonai
ki le-olam hasdô (Ps 118:1 - 2.4).
O give thanks to the Lord for He is good,
His steadfast love endures for ever Let Israel say,
His steadfast love endures for ever!
Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures for ever!”

He treated the synagogue as a house of God and the Chief Rabbi of Rome as a fellow religious leader. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and went to Israel in 2000, visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. At Yad Vashem, he condemned antisemitism in the name of the Church.  He said: “As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.’’

A man of the theater, he well understood that “the media is the message” and that his words would echo throughout the Christian world. His letter inserted into the Western Wall bears reiteration:

“God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring Your name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour 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.”

Jerusalem, March 26, 2000
Signed: John Paul II

Though he did not say everything I would have liked him to have said, what he said was all important, and the place from which he uttered these statements was even more symbolic. Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism, and by his visit recognized the form that Judaism took after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He placed a prayer into the wall, as is the custom of the devout. His visit to the office of the Chief Rabbinate, certainly not the most ecumenical of religious offices in the world, was also compelling. Prepared by Jewish history and memory, the rabbis expected polemics, great disputations. Instead, he greeted them as one religious leader to another. The rabbis were shocked by how moved they were by the Pope’s visit.

Not all problems were solved, not all issues were settled, but there was tremendous progress and unprecedented warmth in Jewish-Roman Catholic relations.

Though I have no vote; were I to have vote, I would be honored to consider Pope John Paul II a saint, not a saint without flaws, or human fallibility but a saint nevertheless.

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A blog by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

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