Jerusalem — Standing alone in the cool shadow of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, God’s representative on Earth to 800 million Catholics slipped a typewritten white sheet of paper into a crack in the holiest site in Judaism, and then he prayed.
The powerful moment, symbolizing Pope John Paul II’s desire to build a new peaceful relationship with Israel and the Jewish people, was relayed to tens of millions around the globe on the Internet and television, and in newspapers.
But the text itself — a plea to God for forgiveness for the persecution of Jews — broke no new ground, the words having been uttered several weeks before at the Pope’s Mass of apology in Rome.
The juxtaposition of the two — word and image — raises several questions about the future of Jewish-Catholic relations in the wake of John Paul’s inspiring weeklong journey to the Holy Land.
Will the stirring images of the frail-looking 79-year-old religious leader at the Western Wall and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial alone be sufficient to bring closure to 2,000 torturous years of Jewish-Christian relations, including outstanding concerns about the Holocaust?
And how will the message behind the emotional scenes be taught in the pews and schools to reach future generations?
“The results will be in the future practical applications,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “It is up to the local churches and bishops conferences to have programs and courses on the meaning of the State of Israel and Judaism, and the Holocaust in all levels of education.”
To that end, Rabbi Klenicki said he has started discussions with a national Catholic organization to jointly publish all the speeches the Pope made in Israel with a study guide, to be distributed to all bishops in the United States and Catholic educational leaders. The idea is to work on the local, grassroots level.
“There’s great interest in Catholic circles about this event,” he said.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said he’s already seeing a positive effect on Christians because of the power of the images from Jerusalem.
As if to underscore that thinking, the Swedish Church this week deleted from its Bible passages that can be interpreted as anti-Semitic, The Jerusalem Post reported. The passages include accusations that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. Although the church is Lutheran-Protestant, the action — taken in conjunction with the Stockholm Jewish community — is believed to have been influenced by the Pope’s request for forgiveness from the Jews.
“This is not a temporary state,” Rabbi Rubin said. “This pilgrimage, one of the most emotional in history, will become part of the record and the images will be part of the textbooks and seminary training. “That’s my hope, so when they talk about Jews and Judaism it won’t be an abstraction.”
But Rabbi Rudin also noted that the Church has shown a mixed record on educating its members and youth about the 35-year-old positive changes on its views about Jews from the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
“It’s true, it hasn’t been enough,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to work with them. The thing is, the Pope has made this personal in ways that academic papers and sermons and conferences and even bishops’ declarations could never do. That’s the hope, that’s it’s embedded in the psyche of Christians throughout the world.”
For Rabbi David Rosen, director of the ADL’s Israel office and a liaison to the Vatican, the Pope’s trip completes a full reconciliation with Jews and their connection to Israel.
“The highest event for me was the [Pope] meeting with Israel’s president,” said Rabbi Rosen, contending that throughout his papacy, John Paul already has reconciled with Judaism itself.
“One factor that had not been fully addressed in a symbolic way is the Pope acknowledging the relationship between the [Jewish] people and the land and the significance of the state. That was the last issue on the agenda. That image was fully developed when he visited the president.”
The Pope insisted the visit, the climax to his remarkable 21-year papacy, was a personal spiritual pilgrimage tracing the life of Jesus, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem. Yet he knew the profound political significance it held for Israelis, Palestinians, non-Catholic Christians, Jews around the world and Muslims.
On a global scale, the visit seemed a major success for Israel and the Jewish community, and somewhat of a public relations disaster for Muslim clerics.
Tens of millions of Christian television viewers around the world who followed the Pope’s movements saw the Israeli police pull off one of the most hand-wringing security projects in the history of the state. With so many possibilities for incident, its forces successfully protected the pontiff in this volatile region, perhaps the greatest boost of public relations in years. (Palestinian officials accused Israel of keeping Palestinians away from the Pope during his heavily guarded visits to holy sites in the Old City.)
Israelis also for the first time began learning something about Christians and their beliefs, an important step toward better relations, said Rabbi Rosen.
Some discovered that this Pope had done more than perhaps any in history to repair the torturous attitude of Christians toward Jews by declaring anti-Semitism a sin against God and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
“As the days went by, Israelis who didn’t pay attention at first became more fascinated with the Pope and what he was saying about peace and reconciliation,” Rabbi Rosen said. “I’m quite pleased.”
On another level, observers said Jews worldwide will benefit from the stunning images broadcast from Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, where the Pope delivered powerful spoken and written words about the evils of the Holocaust, 2,000 years of persecution by Christians against Jews, and his determination to forge a new positive relationship with the people he calls the elder brothers of Catholics.
Despite all the positive visual images, some observers said the text of the Western Wall plea — which was removed minutes later by Israeli officials and taken to Yad Vashem for permanent display — was problematic. They noted that the Pope’s words broke no new ground, only repeating past statements.
Rabbi Klenicki acknowledged the contrast between the visual and textual aspects of the scene at the Western Wall.
“The letter is a sign of solidarity and friendship to Israel. The language, we would have liked another kind,” he said. “I would have preferred he mention the teaching of contempt of Jews for centuries by the Church.”
Some even felt the Yad Vashem speech could be seen as a step backward because he failed to include previous calls for Christians to do repentance for sins against Jews.
“There were things left unsaid that should have been said, and were said in the past,” noted Rabbi Rudin.
Specifically, he cited the Pope’s March 1998 letter calling for repentance by Christians and the responsibility the Church has in teaching future generations about the new positive Church doctrine toward Jews.
Others lamented that the Pope did not acknowledge the “silence” of World War II-era Pope Pius XII or the Church’s historical role in fostering anti-Jewish attitudes that created the environment in which the Holocaust could occur.
Also left unaddressed was the request by major Jewish, U.S. and Catholic leaders to have the Vatican open its Holocaust-era archives for scholarly study to resolve for history the Church’s role.
“We would have welcomed an announcement that he would open the archives,” said Efraim Zuroff, director for the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The question is, what’s more important, the image or the words,” Zuroff offered.
He cited the Pope’s reference at Yad Vashem blaming “a godless ideology” for the Holocaust. “That’s a total cop-out when it comes to acknowledging the responsibility of anti-Semitic Christian teachings in creating the conditions that enabled many devout Catholics to actively participate in mass murder.”
The trip also provided an eye-opening view of the attitudes of Palestinian Islamic religious leaders and their feelings toward Jews and Israel. In what was supposed to be a religious meeting under the gold dome of the Al Aqsa mosque Sunday, Grand Mufti Ekrema Said Sabri lobbied the Pope to “stand by justice and end the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem.”
The political speech troubled Vatican officials and other Muslims.
Sabri is the same cleric who refused to join John Paul and Israeli Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Lau in an interfaith trialogue several days before. The high-ranking sheik who came in his stead walked out on the event after delivering an angry anti-Israel diatribe.
Meanwhile, Israel’s chief rabbis and virtually all the religious cabinet ministers failed to show at the Pope’s airport welcoming ceremony, citing the Purim holiday for their absence.
For his part the Pope, using a cane and proceeding with small shuffling steps, masterfully navigated this political minefield, steadfastly delivering his message of peace and reconciliation.
But on the ground, it appeared this week that the immediate effect on the average Israeli was minimal. Despite the excitement of top Israeli leaders, it was difficult to find anyone in Jerusalem — from the college campus to the settlements — who cared about the visit beyond its impact on local traffic.
“I’m glad he went back, I lost business for three days,” said a 60-something Jerusalem cabbie named Zevulun.
At Hebrew University, the visit spurred no conversations among students, said visiting Long Island student Kerri Bayowitz. The real consequence, she noted, was police turning Mount Scopus into a huge no-parking zone.
In Efrat, a West Bank settlement 20 miles from Jerusalem, the Pope’s actions had little resonance. “People I talked to were more concerned about how it would affect their drive to their family’s house for Purim,” said Ann Goodman, a former New Yorker.
But Einat, a 37-year-old secretary from Tel Aviv, was pleasantly surprised by the Pope’s words and gestures — as were many people here.
“Given the Catholic Church’s history of anti-Semitism, I just figured it would be more of the same,” said Einat, waiting at a bus.
“In reality, the Pope appeared to be very pro-Israel, even though he sympathized with the Palestinians’ desire for a state. Seeing him meeting with government officials, it gave me a good feeling, as if the Vatican’s recognition of Israel was more than just empty words.”
Hoping that the Pope might apologize for the Church’s role in the Holocaust, Einat said she tuned into Israel TV’s live broadcast from Yad Vashem.
“He didn’t make the apology I’d hope for, but I have to admit that I almost cried when he remembered the Jewish friends of his childhood who died in the Holocaust,” she said. “I got the feeling that the Pope is pained by our pain.”
Israel correspondent Michele Chabin
contributed to this report.