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Pope John Paul II: A Retrospective
Spectre, George L.
We live in an age of “photo ops,” when image too often triumphs over substance. More than a few public figures act as if – to recast what a famous American football coach said about winning – image is not everything; it is the only thing. So cynics might say that Pope John Paul II’s words and deeds during his historic visit to Israel in March were mostly about image. He did what he did because it was expected. And because it looks good.
But nothing could be farther from the reality of John Paul II. This Pontiff’s extraordinary embrace of the Jewish people is genuine, and deeply felt. His gestures of reconciliation in Israel, and in St. Peter’s Basilica earlier that month, were hardly “photo ops”. They were opportunities to make amends for past sins...sins of both commission and omission. For John Paul II seems acutely aware of the destructive role that the Church’s demonization of Jews has played since the very early days of Christianity. And just as aware that rejection of the Jewish people is completely incongruous with the Church’s professions of love, charity and universal brotherhood.
Pope John XXIII, of course, started the process of healing. His Vatican II conference brought forth Nostra Aetate (Latin for “Our Times”) and the renunciation of the charge of “deicide” – collective guilt for the crucifixion of Christ – against the Jewish people. Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, was one of the drafters of that historic document that would be the bedrock of a new and very different relationship with the Jewish people.
Yet Jews were more than a little uneasy when Karol Wojtyla ascended the throne of Peter. A Polish Pope? Poland, where antisemitism was so fierce and deeply rooted? Would his pontificate reflect that Polish bigotry? Would he turn a cold and hostile shoulder to the Jewish people? Would we be thrust back to pre-Vatican II times?
Fortunately that fear was without foundation. As author Tad Szulc – a Jew who was born in Poland – details in his 1996 Pope John Paul II: The Biography, Karol Wojtyla was anything but antisemitic. Growing up in a small town that was 20 percent Jewish, many of Wojtyla’s friends were Jews. The sports-minded Karol enjoyed soccer, and whenever the Jewish soccer team was lacking a goalie, he would absent himself from his own Catholic team and substitute for his Jewish friends. “He wasn’t really a very good goalkeeper,” reminisced one of the Jewish team members many decades later, but as a friend to the Jewish boys – this Polish Jew made clear – there was none better. In those days, that kind of friendship between a Catholic and a Jew was a rarity.
As the war clouds gathered over Europe, the families of some of Wojtyla’s Jewish friends decided to flee Poland. Influenced by Nazism, a pro-fascist, antisemitic government had come to power. Karol’s father – said to be a good-hearted man – was visibly upset when his Jewish neighbors came to his house to inform him of their imminent departure. But the young Karol was so upset that he could not even speak. The thought of losing his Jewish friends was just too painful.
During the war, Wojtyla was preparing for the priesthood and did not take part in the underground resistance against the Germans. But he did take the risk of participating in the anti-Nazi underground theater. If discovered, the penalty was Auschwitz.
An incident is related following the war which speaks poignantly about Karol Wojtyla’s acceptance and respect for the Jewish people. A woman came to Father Wojtyla asking him to baptize her son. In the course of the conversation, the woman revealed that the child was not her own, that he was given to her by a Jewish woman just as she was being sent to Auschwitz. Upon further questioning by Wojtyla, the woman also revealed that the boy had grandparents living in America. With this information, Wojtyla refused to perform the baptism, insisting instead that the boy be sent to his Jewish grandparents in the United States for a Jewish upbringing. The woman was not about to go against the wishes of her priest, and the boy was put on a boat for America.
In his first years as Pope, John Paul II visited Auschwitz where he paid homage to the Jewish victims. In 1986, he became the first Pontiff to visit a synagogue – the Great Synagogue of Rome. “You are our brothers,” said John Paul on that occasion, “and in a certain way, our dearly beloved older brother.” In 1987, he stated that “the Jews have a right to nationhood, as do all other peoples, according to international law.” Six years later, the Vatican and Israel established formal relations.
Ambassador Avi Pazner, who accompanied then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres for an audience with John Paul II in October 1992, recalls: “We sat across the desk from the pope. At the beginning of the conversation, Peres formally invited the pope to visit Israel. The pope did not respond, and general conversation continued for ten or fifteen minutes. Peres then thought that perhaps John Paul II had not heard him correctly, so he repeated the invitation, clearly and distinctly, making it absolutely clear that this was a formal invitation to visit Jerusalem. There was a moment of silence, and I saw tears in the pope’s eyes, the tears slowly streaming down his cheeks. He was terribly, terribly moved and touched. He thanked us for the invitation.... It was a Shakespearean moment....”
After the establishment of relations with Israel in 1993, the Pope explained his decision: “It must be understood that Jews, who for 2,000 years were dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right.” But it was not a right recognized by most of his predecessors, particularly Pope Pius XII who even opposed Jewish emigration to Palestine to escape Hitler.
On April 7, 1994, an unprecedented event took place within the walls of the Vatican. Six candlesticks of the menorah were lit and the Kaddish recited. This was the way John Paul II chose to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto. Earlier that day he had met with about a hundred Holocaust survivors and their families in the Apostolic Palace. The Pope took time to greet the visitors individually. They were struck by his warmth and sensitivity. Many of the Jews wept openly.
In March, 1998, the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews released We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah. While the document – ten years in the making – fell short of Jewish hopes and expectations (notably in the chapter on the Holocaust and Pope Pius XII) it was still an extraordinary expression of contrition. The Pope had already declared antisemitism a sin, requiring formal absolution.
Two years to the month after We Remember, John Paul II did something even more extraordinary. In the hallowed halls of St. Peter’s where so many thousands of private confessions are heard, the Roman Catholic Church was publicly asking for forgiveness. John Paul, with seven cardinals and bishops chiming in, asked Divine pardon for “the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these [Jewish] children of yours to suffer.” The Pope then committed the Church and its followers to “genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.” “No one else,” said George Weigel, who has written Witness to Hope, the most recent biography of John Paul II, “has ever undertaken such an in-depth reckoning.”
Two weeks later he was at Yad Vashem in Israel, honoring “the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust.” The Church, he said, “is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.” Later, he placed a copy of that message in the Wall, the most sacred site in Israel.
As John Paul II approaches the end of his pontificate, one is aware that not everything this Pontiff has done met with acclaim by the Jewish people. He granted an audience to Kurt Waldheim despite the disclosures about the Austrian president’s concealed involvement in Nazi war crimes. He met with Yasser Arafat years before Arafat renounced terrorism. He beatified Edith Stein, the Jewish-born nun who was gassed at Auschwitz only because of her Jewishness. He ostensibly supports the beatification of Pope Pius XII, yet with all of his declarations of contrition about the Church’s treatment of Jews, fails to specifically address what many believe was the Vatican’s near indifference to the fate of European Jewry in Nazi occupied Europe.
Even during his trip to Israel, some resented the Pope’s declared support for Palestinian independence, as well as his curious comment – made before a Palestinian audience that included Yasser Arafat – giving credence to the invention of Palestinian propaganda that the heroes in the Jesus drama were “Palestinians”.
Although – from the Jewish perspective – Pope John Paul II does not have a perfect record, the overall impact of his pontificate has been surpassingly positive. He has infused the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people with a respect that none of his predecessors – with the exception of John XXIII – were willing to give. There has been none of the condescending “triumphalism” and “supercessionism” evinced by previous popes. God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, John Paul II made clear, remains in effect.
Yet one is tempted to ask whether that new respect has fully penetrated the Catholic mindset – even within the Vatican itself. Monsignor Peter Gumpel, a Vatican official who is responsible for building the case for the beatification of Pius XII, has shown decided “atavistic,” pre-Nostra Aetate tendencies. Nostra Aetate, together with the historic pronouncements of John Paul II, have transformed the old theology of contempt into one of acceptance. Unfortunately the Vatican’s new directives on the Jews have not been fully or evenly implemented throughout the Catholic world. How and to what extent those directives are implemented will test the lasting legacy of Pope John Paul II.
We can only hope that John Paul II’s example of menschlichkeit will in the end prevail.
* George L. Spectre is editor of B’nai B’rith World Report which published this commentary in its 2000 Report. It is reprinted here with permission.