Passover is over and Shavuot is weeks away. It’s a season when Jews traditionally take time for contemplation and reflection.
This year, I’ve been reflecting on Catholicism. Rather on the complicated interfaith nexuses between Catholics and Jews.
In large part, of course, this is because of the beatification May 1 of Pope John Paul II.
Critics have questioned the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to waive the usual five-year waiting period and fast-track John Paul’s road to sainthood.
And JP2 had his faults—his handling of the priest sex abuse scandals has come under particular recent scrutiny.
But the Polish-born pontiff was the best pope the Jewish world ever had.
“There have been few times in the 2,000 years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope,” the eminent Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in a recent column. “When Pope John Paul II died, I—and many other Jews—cried.”
I don’t recall actually shedding tears when John Paul died on April 2, 2005 at the age of 84. In fact, I was in the midst of celebrating my nephew’s bar mitzvah.
But I did feel deeply touched by his passing—I had reported on John Paul during most of his nearly 27-year papacy.
In a deliberate and demonstrative way, he had made bettering Catholic-Jewish relations and confronting the Holocaust and its legacy a hallmark of his reign, and I had chronicled milestone after milestone in this process.
There had been frictions and setbacks, to be sure. Key among them was the pope’s support for the canonization of his controversial World War II predecessor, Pius XII, and his refusal to open secret Vatican archives to clarify Pius’ role during the Holocaust.
He also hurt Jews by welcoming Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican after Waldheim’s World War II links to the Nazis had come to light. And he upset Jews with his meetings at the Vatican with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
These episodes, however, were far outweighed by positive steps. Some of them were truly groundbreaking measures that jettisoned—or at least shook up—centuries of ingrained Catholic teaching and changed Catholic dogma to reflect respect for Jews and the Jewish religion and apologize for the persecution of Jews by Catholics.
They ranged from his visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 1986, to his frequent meetings with rabbis, Holocaust survivors and Jewish lay leaders, to his repeated condemnation of anti-Semitism, to the establishment of relations between the Vatican and Israel, to John Paul’s own pilgrimage to the Jewish state in 2000, when he prayed at the Western Wall.
It was evident throughout that he was deeply influenced by his own personal history of having grown up with Jewish friends in pre-World War II Poland and then witnessing the destruction during the Shoah.
As Berenbaum put it, John Paul II was “directly touched by the Holocaust” and “assumed responsibility for its memory.”
The program director of a Catholic-run interfaith and dialogue center near the Auschwitz death camp agreed.
“Auschwitz was not an abstract tragedy but it formed part of his life,” the Rev. Manfred Deselaers told the Catholic news agency Zenit.org. “Auschwitz was the school of holiness of John Paul II.”
Given this background, it seemed fitting that the Vatican chose to beatify John Paul on May 1—the eve of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah.
The coincidence, though, was not intentional.
In the Catholic calendar, May 1 this year marked the Sunday after Easter, a feast called Divine Mercy Sunday. And John Paul II had died on the very eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.
Still, the timing sent out a powerful message. And it made me reflect on how very, very radically relations between Catholics and Jews have changed, even in just the past few decades.
Relations between Catholics and Jews are not perfect, of course, and they never will be. There are still anti-Semitic elements in the Church, and John Paul II’s teachings have not trickled down to all the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics. But we do live in a different world.
For centuries, the popes and the Vatican “worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place—barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely,” Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book “The Popes Against the Jews.” “And they did all this according to canon law and the centuries-old belief that in doing so they were upholding the most basic tenets of Christianity.”
Here in Rome, the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870. In many places Jews would stay indoors at Easter for fear of being caught up in a blood libel accusation or be accused of desecrating the Host.
Less dramatically, I still remember from childhood how Catholic kids in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood were forbidden to enter synagogue to attend their friends’ bar mitzvah services.
Formal dialogue began only in 1965, with the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics, and called for interfaith contacts.
Two decades later, in 1986, when John Paul became the first pope to visit a synagogue, he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and declared that Jews were Christianity’s “dearly beloved” and “elder brothers.”
Toaff met frequently with John Paul, and the two established a warm rapport. In fact, Toaff and the pope’s longtime secretary were the only two individuals named in John Paul’s will. The rabbi called that inclusion “a significant and profound gesture for Jews” as well as “an indication to the Catholic world.”
Long retired now, Toaff celebrated his 96th birthday on April 30—the day before John Paul’s beatification.
The memory of John Paul “remains indelibly impressed in the collective memory of the Jewish people,” Toaff said in a statement published after the beatification in the Vatican’s official newspaper. “In the afflicted history of relations between the popes of Rome and the Jewish people, in the shadow of the ghetto in which they were closed for over three centuries in humiliating and depressing conditions, the figure of John Paul II emerges luminous in all of its exceptionality.”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com. She is currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.)