There have been few times in the two thousand years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope;when Pope Jon Paul II died, I – and many other Jews – cried. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII has done more to improve on Catholic Jewish relations than any Pope in history. And Jews should react with joy at the beatification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday May 1st.
It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent.
Nowhere is this paradox more pronounced that in the post-Holocaust behavior of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II made confronting the Shoah and the fight against antisemitism a centerpiece of his papacy. He brought Roman Catholic-Jewish relations to a new level of respect. Like his predecessor Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II was directly touched by the Holocaust and has assumed responsibility for its memory. Both men were changed by the history they experienced and as leaders changed the institution they headed, even an institution so conservative and seemingly so reticent to change as the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John XXIII accepted the ongoing life of the Jewish people after the arrival of Jesus rejecting supercessionism, the doctrine that Christianity had come to replace Judaism and thus that there was no reason for the people of Israel to remain Jews; he eliminated the charge of deicide and removed it from Catholic teaching and liturgy, he stopped to greet Jews leaving a Rome Synagogue on Sabbath, yet neither he nor his two immediate successors accepted the renascent State of Israel, the very form of Jewish life since 1948. He had come to terms with 1878 years of Jewish life – the years of Jewish exile from 70 C.E. to 1948
Enter Pope John Paul II who as a young man in Poland witnessed the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Polish cities, which were once the home of large and thriving Jewish communities, were bereft of Jews and the Pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. As a young university student, and when he worked in the theater Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends. Some remained his friends throughout his long and distinguished life. As a recently ordained young priest, he was asked to baptize children born of Jewish parents who had been raised by Polish Catholics, who had sheltered them during the Shoah, thereby saving their lives. When their Jewish parents did not return after the war, the Polish family that had raised them lived them as their own children and wanted to raise them in their faith. On these occasions, the future Pope insisted that Jewish children first be informed of their Jewish origins and only then could they be baptized. It was an act of courage – political, religious and pastoral in post-war Poland, a deed of profound respect for memory. It was not an act popular with his congregants who were unable to tell young Jewish children of their origins during the war for such information could be lethal of both the child and his adoptive family, and who were reluctant to do so after the war for fear of reprisal from the local population and for complicating their relationship.
As Pope John Paul II, he recognized the State of Israel. He visited a synagogue for prayer and treated the Rabbi and the Congregation of Rome with every religious courtesy. Instead of dividing the world between Christians and Jews, he spoke of the commonality of religious traditions/ He spoke with reverence of the Torah. He spoke out against antisemitism again and again. He visited the sites of Jewish death and acknowledged on numerous occasions the centrality of the Shoah.
His visit to Poland in 1979 was perhaps the moment for which he was elected Pope. He delegitimated Communism in Poland and played a pivotal role in its demise. And Communism was the strongest enemy of Jewish nationalism and of Judaism.
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel – the State and not just the Holy Land. From the moment he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian antisemitism but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said – he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians not of Christianity—his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the Third Millennia, The Pontiff was determined that Roman Catholics act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends. He took all-important steps to make certain that the full authority of the papacy was brought to bear against antisemitism. His theology was quite simple: antisemitism is a sin against God. It is anti-Christian. These are welcome words to every Jew and one could sense their power by the manner in which the Israelis received Pope John Paul II. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, opposed by conviction to anything ecumenical and raised on the stories transmitted through the generations of confrontations between Priests and Rabbis, were deeply impressed by the Papal visit to the offices of the Israel’s Chief Rabbis.
Pope John Paul II’s record was not perfect. He attempted to canonize Pope Pius XII, the war-time Pontiff, he did not open the Vatican Archives from World War II for researchers on the Holocaust to let the true record of he Vatican be known, he canonized Pope Leo IX who had forbidden he return of a forcibly baptized Jewish child, he welcome Yasir Arafat and President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican, the former before he recognized Israel and the later after his Nazi past was exposed and he had flamed Austrian antisemitism during his presidential campaign.. The most charitable thing that can be said of his handling of the pedophile scandal in the Church was that it was inadequate. Jewish tradition teaches that “there is no righteous person without sin.”
Yet none of this can obscure the overriding substance of his papacy. He demonstrated that true religiosity – devout, orthodox and pious as it may be—need not demonizes another religion and disparager other faiths and the right of another religion to worship their God as they believe. The innocent ones who felt guilty have led contemporary Roman Catholicism to renounce antisemitism and to accept the integrity of the ongoing religious life of the Jews. This behavior should serve as a model for Jews and Muslims as well as for other religious leaders as to the ethical requirements of religious doctrine.