Ordinarily, Jews have little interest in whom the Roman Catholic Church canonizes as saints. Yet, on the Sunday after Easter, the day that coincides with Yom Ha-Shoah, the 27th of Nisan, two men, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, will be elevated to sainthood, and both of them bear notice.
There is a paradox relating to the Holocaust that was first observed by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: The innocent feel guilty, and the guilty feel innocent.
The greatest strides in Catholic-Jewish relations in the entire two millennia of that relationship were made at the initiative of these two popes, who were innocent during the Shoah and yet who felt responsibility for the Holocaust.
A word about Pope John XXIII: While serving as papal nuncio, a diplomatic post, in Istanbul, and known at the time as Archbishop Roncalli, he worked with the delegates of the Yishuv, the Jewish leadership in Palestine — pre-state Israel — to warn Hungarian Jews and to rescue those who could be rescued. He established direct communication with the Yishuv’s formal leaders in Turkey and even met with clandestine operatives. He did not, as was widely rumored, offer false baptismal certificates, but rather did something a bit more clever — he wrote letters indicating that the holder of the letter was a “co-religionist and fellow countryman of Jesus” and “should be entitled to Vatican protection.” Notice the language — “co-religionist and fellow countryman” is a reference to Jews. “Should be entitled to Vatican protection” does not mean that the holder is entitled to Vatican protection. It suggests a tone of aspiration rather than actual fact. He wrote to leaders in Bulgaria, where he had previously served, urging them to protect their Jews and directly to King Boris III, asking him not to deport Bulgarian Jews.
Elected as an interim, caretaker pope after the long pontificate of Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII met with the French historian Jules Isaac and studied the history of anti-Semitism. He then took the bold initiative of calling the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 (commonly known as Vatican II), bringing about, among its important initiatives, Nostra Aetate, which used the tools of Catholicism to revamp the Church’s teaching on the Jews. The Church then institutionalized that transformation by changing the Good Friday liturgy, as well as its scriptural reading.
In essence, Vatican II taught what critical historical scholarship had established long ago — that Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion of Christ, but, rather, the human propensity to sin was. If, as Christians believe, Christ died for our sins, if his death was a sacrificial atonement, then without human sin, there would be no need for such atonement. Furthermore, Good Friday liturgy eliminated the reference to perfidious Jews and the reading of Matthew 27, in which Jews are depicted as having accepted responsibility on themselves and their children for the Crucifixion.
Teaching was combined with gesture, doctrine with human contact. Pope John XXIII stopped at the Great Synagogue of Rome and greeted its worshipers leaving Sabbath prayers, wishing them a “good Shabbat.” It was an unprecedented step for the bishop of Rome, the heir of St. Peter, to visit the Jews of Rome. It had simply never been done before.
Thus, Pope John XXIII came to terms with 1,878 years of Jewish life — following the destruction of the Second Temple until the birth of Israel.
Enter Pope John Paul II, who took the transformations initiated by Pope John XXIII, and sustained by Paul VI, another series of steps further.
A word of biography is in order. John Paul II is probably the first pope who could truthfully say, “Some of my best friends are Jewish,” and mean it literally. Prior to becoming a priest, he was in direct contact with Jews; he knew them from the soccer fields, where he often played on the Jewish side when they were short a player, as well as while a university student and from the theater; one local Jew was among his closest friends and remained a friend throughout the pontiff’s long life. His friend even took an apartment in Rome to be near the pope, once he was elected.
Yaffa Eliach documented in legendary form that while still a parish priest, Karol Józef Wojtyła refused to baptize Jewish children who had been saved by Roman Catholic Polish families when their parents were deported, unless the children 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 postwar 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 the conversation burdensome.
Allow me to explain.
If you trusted a neighbor and your child had a certain type of appearance, meaning that they did not look “too Jewish” and they were preverbal, Jewish parents about to be deported might ask a Polish family to take care of their child. The child could not be told that they were Jewish at the time, as the information, if repeated, would be lethal to the child and also to the family that was sheltering him. When and 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, embracing his or her adoptive parents, the only parents he or she had known, and feeling the biological parents to be strangers who had abandoned him or her. So even when the parents survived, the child often wanted to stay put. If the parents or a parent did not return after the war, it became dangerous to reveal to a child that they were Jewish, as this could lead to the surrogate parents being labeled as “Jew lovers” and to their ostracism. So such information was not easily revealed to a child, but Wojtyła insisted.
As pope, John Paul II visited the Roman synagogue and worshipped with the Jewish community. He treated the synagogue as a house of God, with all the respect due to such standing, and he treated the chief rabbi of Rome as a fellow religious leader. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and traveled there in 2000, visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. At Yad Vashem, he apologized for the anti-Semitism of Christians — not of Christianity — and made the all-important statement that anti-Semitism is anti-Christian. A man of the theater, he understood well that the media is the message, and that his words would echo throughout the Christian world.
Although he did not say everything I would have liked him to have, what he did say was all-important, and the place from which he uttered these statements was even more symbolic. By visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism, Pope John Paul II 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 medieval disputations. Instead he greeted them as one religious leader to another. The rabbis were shocked at how moved they were by the pope’s visit.
Not all problems were solved, not all issues were settled, but the result was tremendous progress and unprecedented warmth in Jewish-Roman Catholic relations.
It is worth noting, as well, who was not elevated to sainthood this Yom HaShoah: Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whose record during the Holocaust is, to say the least, controversial. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict, admired Pius XII for his piety and asceticism, and prior to stepping down had been moving along his candidacy for sainthood.
There is another reason to celebrate Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. I believe that the most urgent issue in interreligious life today is whether we can find within our religious traditions a way to accept the other, rather than to demonize the other. Can we use the tools of our own tradition to move beyond the notion of tolerance into acceptance of an underlying religious embrace of the other? Or must we resort to those parts of our tradition — each of our traditions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim — that demonize the other, that deny the other, that cannot recognize in the other one of God’s creation. I know of no issue more central to the world today, no other issue that could so likely determine our collective future, and I know of no religious leaders who have done more to show us the way than the two men who will be canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic tradition, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
We should note, as well, that Pope Francis has made yet another profound gesture by elevating these men. To me, their deeds were saintly.