Long before he was Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla was a parish priest with a serious dilemma. In the dark days of the Holocaust, when the Germans were closing in on the Jews of Poland, a young Jewish couple named Hiller took their 2-year-old son Shachne to the home of some family friends, a childless Catholic couple named Jachowicz.
The boy's parents died in Auschwitz, just 40 minutes away. The Polish couple raised the boy as their own, he attended Catholic school and learned the prayers by heart. When he turned 4, his parents turned to their local priest and asked whether, considering the circumstances, they could baptize their son into the Catholic faith.
Father Wojtyla asked the parents a simple question: What were the instructions left by the boy's mother and father? When he heard that the mother had instructed the Jachowiczs to return the boy to his people and his faith, the priest said no, the boy must remain a Jew.
The priest's guidance flew in the face of hundreds of years of Church history. This was the church that sanctioned the abduction, forced baptism and adoption of Jewish children right up to modern times. This was the church whose pope, even in 1942, reacted with a closed heart to the murder of millions of Jews.
The writer David Klinghoffer has said that if Bill Clinton was the first "black" president, then John Paul II was the first Jewish pope. His well-documented actions and pronouncements over the years displayed empathy for Jewish suffering and an understanding of Jewish teaching that has changed the course of Christian-Jewish relations.
That's not to say his every act met with widespread Jewish approval. He welcomed Kurt Waldheim, embraced Yasser Arafat, and elevated Pope Pius IX -- the man who in 1858 actually adopted a Jewish boy whom the church abducted -- to sainthood. But if his agenda did not always make sense, his larger vision did.
I thought about that vision during an interfaith memorial service for the pope held Tuesday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. I came a bit late and found a seat on the side of the altar, facing the audience of 500 or so. And it was quite a parade: Jews of all denominations, men and women in white turbans, Muslims in scarves and hijabs, Buddhists in saffron robes, the rich and the poor, the faithful and the secular, the mayor of Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, looking somber and moved.
Rows of white lilies lined the aisles, and more lilies framed a giant photo of the pope on the altar.
In a nearby alcove a picture of the pope was poised above rows of votive candles. I put my two dollars in the donation box and lit one.
Do you remember the fuss made over the last two popes who died? Me neither. What was it about this man, I wondered.
"He was our pope," said the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, the Archdiocese's ecumenical and interreligious affairs officer, who organized the service. That is, the pope's spiritual leadership, his moral example, transcended Catholicism, to take in believers and nonbelievers of all types.
"He served a God who was not geographically or spiritually bound," Rabbi Harold Schulweis told the audience at the cathedral. "His God was melech ha'olam, 'God of the Universe.'"
At a time when faith is a substitute for knowledge, when the faithful assert their ignorance with pride and even try to foist it on the public schools, the pope was a model of spirituality melded to a fierce, probing intellect. He spoke several languages, read deeply in philosophy and religion, and understood that secular knowledge informs, rather than undermines, belief.
At a time when religious leaders and the politicians who curry their favor focus solely on strengthening their base, this pope demonstrated his concern for all of humanity. He restored the sense that religion could be big, that Catholicism could be catholic in its embrace of all people and all faiths.
In a world afflicted by loneliness, he made his presence felt physically, literally, around the world. In the Philippines, in Texas, in Jerusalem -- it was a kind of bikur holim, visiting of the sick, and you could sense the healing effect he had on masses of people as he traveled.
It was always very easy for me, watching the pope in his travels, to imagine John Paul II as a Jew. I'd see him on television in his glorious vestments, the white robe, the scepter and the mitre, and suddenly I'd picture him instead wearing a plain black suit, white shirt and dark tie -- John Paul I. B. Singer. Suddenly, he looked like so many other old Jewish men I've met from that time and place, stooped men with bright, intelligent faces, harboring memories whose pain I couldn't begin to grasp.
So I wasn't surprised when, toward the end of the service at the cathedral, an elderly man wearing a yarmulke stood up and quietly, softly said Kaddish.