John Paul II and the Jews

For 20 centuries, the Catholic Church has had a turbulent relationship with the Jewish people. Jews were persecuted and held responsible for the death of Jesus, and were often the victims of church-instigated pogroms and anti-Semitic attacks.

With the passing of Pope John Paul II, we have lost the strongest advocate for reconciliation with the Jewish people in the history of the Vatican. This pope was determined to embark on a new course and leave that shameful period behind. From the very beginning of his papacy, when he first visited his native Poland, there were hints that this pope was going to break with tradition and not follow the centuries-old script, with respect to the Jews.

On his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, when he approached the inscriptions bearing the names of the countries whose citizens had been murdered there, he said: “I kneel before all the inscriptions bearing the memory of the victims in their languages…. In particular, I pause … before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination…. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference…. “

The first time I met the pope was in 1983, when I led a Wiesenthal Center mission to Eastern Europe. There, at a private audience at the Vatican, I expressed my concerns about anti-Semitism and said, “We come here today hoping to hear from you, the beloved spiritual leader of 700 million Christians, a clear and unequivocal message to all that this scourge in all its manifestations violates the basic creed to which all men of faith must aspire.”

Obviously, John Paul II understood that very well, but it is important to place in proper context the considerable obstacles that he had to overcome.

During the height of the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were being gassed, the Vatican found the time to write letters opposing the creation of a Jewish state. On May 4, 1943, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Magaloni informed the British government of the Vatican’s opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One day later, the Vatican was informed that of the 4 million Jews residing in pre-war Poland, only about 100,000 were still alive.

Six weeks later, on June 22, 1943, the Vatican’s apostolic delegate, Archbishop Cicognani, wrote to then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, again detailing its opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine and warning him that Catholics the world over would be aroused, and saying, in part:

“It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left 19 centuries before…. If a Hebrew home is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine.”

To imagine then that 62 years later a Polish Pope would have redefined Vatican thinking regarding the Jewish people is astounding.

Twenty years after our first meeting, on Dec. 3, 2003, together with a small delegation of center trustees, I returned to the Vatican for another private audience, this time to present the pope with the Wiesenthal Center’s highest honor, our Humanitarian Award. On that occasion, I recapped his remarkable accomplishments:

“As a youngster, you played goalie on the Jewish soccer team in Wadowice … in 1937, concerned about the safety of Ginka Beer, a Jewish student on her way to Palestine, you personally escorted her to the railroad station … in 1963, you were one of the major supporters of Nostra Aetate, the historic Vatican document which rejected the collective responsibility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion … in 1986, you were the first pope to ever visit a synagogue … the first to recognize the State of Israel … the first to issue a document that seeks forgiveness for members of the church for wrongdoing committed against the Jewish people throughout history and to apologize for Catholics who failed to help Jews during the Nazi period … the first to visit a concentration camp and to institute an official observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Vatican….”

I did not always agree with the pope, especially when he nominated Pius XII for sainthood or when he met with then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. But one thing is clear: In the 2,000-year history of the papacy, no previous occupant of the throne of St. Peter has had such an interest in seeking reconciliation with the Jewish people.

With his passing, the world has lost a great moral leader and a righteous man, and the Jewish people have lost their staunchest advocate in the history of the church.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Related Stories

Milestones in Pope’s Relations With Jews

L.A. Rabbis Voice Praise for John Paul II

Pope’s Jewish Legacy

Papal Tiger

When the pope came to Missouri this week, the St. Louis archdiocese made sure to include several dramatic gestures of Catholic-Jewish friendship in his schedule. They were the sort of breakthrough events John Paul II has prized through 20 years of papacy.

But it’s wearing thin.

There was, for instance, the invitation to Rabbi Robert Jacobs, head of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, to read a passage from Isaiah during the papal Vespers service at the St. Louis Cathedral. “It’s the first time in history that a rabbi has been part of a Catholic liturgy,” Jacobs says.

Then there was the invitation to attorney Alan Freed, who blows the shofar at his synagogue, to sound the ram’s horn during morning Mass at the TWA Dome stadium. It was the first time a papal Mass ever began with the ancient Jewish clarion. And, Freed notes, “it was doubly appropriate, since the Dome is the home of the football Rams.”

“This is history in the making,” says Jacobs, who is 90. “This pope has gone out of his way to make symbolic gestures to the Jewish community wherever he’s gone.”

Well, yes, he has. He was the first pope to visit Auschwitz and speak of the “special suffering of the Jewish people.” The first to visit a synagogue and declare the Jews’ covenant with God “irrevocable.” The first to open diplomatic relations with Israel. The first to declare anti-Semitism a “sin against God.” It’s some record.

Now we have the first papal haftorah and first papal tekia gedola. He’s running out of ideas.

No, if you wanted to see John Paul’s impact on Catholic-Jewish relations this week, the best place to be was outside St. Louis. About an hour away, in semi-rural Cottleville, the Sunday before the pope came, the local church was having Parish Day, a yearly seminar for lay folk. This year’s theme: Introduction to Judaism.

The topic came from one of the parish’s “small faith communities,” which meet for prayer and study in members’ homes. One group had been exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity. Now they wanted the whole parish to participate.

It started with the Bible, says retired computer salesman John Queenan. “Scriptures are always involved in our sessions. And the scriptures are all Jewish, naturally. So we just got interested in how things developed.” Meaning Christianity.

“We knew it came from Jewish roots,” says John’s wife, Bibi. “But no one knew how. So we contacted a temple.” The temple sent a lecturer. Then the group attended Friday-night services. Last Sunday, the interfaith affairs director of the St. Louis archdiocese, Father Vincent Heier, came to Cottleville to lecture on modern Judaism.

A parish program like that, in rural Missouri, would have been remarkable a quarter century ago, unthinkable a half century ago. Today, it’s routine nationwide. Catholic leaders call it a revolution. “It’s an example of how we’re trying to build bridges, trying to understand one another,” says Father Heier. “We’ve moved a long way from seeing Jewish people simply as people to be converted.”

The father of the revolution, Catholics agree, is John Paul II. “This is a pope who has probably said and done more in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations than any other pope,” Heier says.

Twenty years ago, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, Catholic-Jewish dialogue was brand-new. The second Vatican Council, just 13 years earlier, under Pope John XXIII, had absolved Jews of Jesus’ death. It was the next pope, Paul VI, who launched formal Vatican-Jewish dialogue. Several high-level conferences were held, some key church documents amended. Jewish observers were optimistic, but anxious to see change at the grass roots.

John Paul’s 1978 election was a turning point. A charismatic, media-savvy leader, he turned the papacy into the world’s biggest bully pulpit. He’s used it since to advance pet causes: rolling back communism, restoring traditional church doctrine and forging Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

It’s deeply personal. Wojtyla grew up in a Polish shtetl, saw the Nazis invade, lost half his childhood friends. He’s known to reminisce about the peaceful glow of Sabbath candles Friday evening in the shtetl.

Church leaders say that his gestures over the years — the Auschwitz visit, the synagogue visit and others — have deeply affected believers. “Catholics know this is for real,” says Eugene Fisher, interfaith affairs director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “A pope doesn’t spend this much time on something if it’s not for real.”

For many Jews, the picture isn’t so simple. With the warm gestures have come startling insults. In 1987, the pope granted an audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, an international pariah for having concealed a Nazi past. That same year, a dispute erupted over a convent at Auschwitz, which Jews consider hallowed ground. It wasn’t removed for eight years.

Last year, the Vatican released a long-delayed statement on the Holocaust that looked to Jews like a whitewash of church complicity. As if in response, the pope canonized Edith Stein, a Jew-turned-Catholic nun killed at Auschwitz. Now the Vatican is stonewalling demands that it open its wartime archives.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that, as an individual, improving relations with the Jewish community has been central to his thinking,” says World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg. “On the other hand, institutionally, we have not advanced as far as we could have. And we have taken a lot of steps backward.”

For many church officials, the Jewish complaints are a sign of oversensitivity. But some independent Catholic thinkers are more sympathetic. “The contradictory views in the Jewish community are not untypical of how people view him everywhere,” says Margaret Steinfels, editor of the liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal.

What many see is a mix of social activism and theological conservatism. He helped bring down communism, then began questioning capitalism. He’s attacked both abortion and the death penalty in the name of human life. “He’s pretty well-rounded,” Steinfels says.

John Paul’s lasting legacy, though, may be his theological conservatism. After 20 years, he’s managed to name most of the current church hierarchy. Now his appointees’ conservatism could be undoing him. Increasingly, his instincts for change — whether in Catholic-Jewish relations or North-South economic reform — seem stymied by small-minded underlings.

“He’s going to leave a church that’s crippled,” Steinfels says, “because for fairly narrow, theological reasons, he’s left a group of people in charge who aren’t up to the job. That may be one of the consequences of a pontificate that went on too long.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.