Shortly after a little-known cardinal from Poland was elected spiritual head of the Catholic Church in 1978, Rabbi Arthur Schneier received a call from a network television correspondent asking for comment. The correspondent, who “equated Poles with anti-Semitism,” assumed that Rabbi Schneier, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Manhattan-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an ecumenical human rights organization, would comment negatively on the new pope, the rabbi recalls.
Instead, Rabbi Schneier predicted that Krakow’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who took the papal name of John Paul II, would improve the church’s relationship with the Jewish community.
“I said if anything, the pope from Poland would have a greater sense of the suffering” that Jews had undergone in recent history than his Italian-born predecessors at the Vatican, he said, noting that the base of his diocese was 60 miles from Auschwitz.
John Paul II’s 26 years as pope, which included symbolic and substantive overtures to Jews and the State of Israel, played a major role in reversing the centuries-long contentious ties between the Jewish and Catholic religions, erasing the doubts expressed by many members of the Jewish community when he succeeded John Paul I, according to representatives of several prominent Jewish organizations.
The pope, who died Saturday at 84, was remembered as a charismatic figure who brought a passion to the theological principle of closer interfaith relations that was advanced, with his participation, by the Vatican II declarations four decades ago. The representatives of the Jewish organizations who had worked with John Paul II over the years cited his landmark visits abroad (to a Rome synagogue, to Auschwitz, to Israel), his cultural efforts (including the 1994 Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust, and a 2004 interfaith-outreach concert, both under the baton of Jewish-American conductor Gilbert Levine), his political precedent (establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel), and his condemnation of anti-Semitism (reversing the Church’s policy of religious triumphalism, and labeling anti-Semitism a “complete contradiction to the Christian vision of human dignity.”)
“For him, the Jewish community was very important,” said Avi Granot, a political adviser to the president of Israel who formerly served as spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Rome and handled interfaith dialogue for Israel’s embassy in Washington.
“He moved Vatican II forward,” said Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ interfaith liaison. The church’s ties with the Jewish community “became one of the hallmarks of his very long papacy. Catholics from right to left are very pleased with this. They see it as a very positive development. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing that the church has rectified the wrongs of history.”
The pope’s accomplishments, Jewish leaders said, overshadowed Jewish criticism of him over such issues as his embrace of Yasir Arafat, his meeting with Austria’s Kurt Waldheim, the establishment of a convent at Auschwitz, the failure of the Vatican to completely open its archives, the revelation that some Jewish children baptized during the Holocaust were not subsequently returned to the Jewish community, the Vatican’s canonization of Jewish-born nun Edith Stein, and the on-again, off-again attempt to declare Pius XII a saint.
One critic within Catholic circles, writer James Carroll, a former priest, praised the pope for seeking reconciliation with Jews, but faulted the pontiff for blaming Catholic individuals, and not the Church itself, for crimes against the Jews.
Pope John Paul II was “inhibited in his inability to go perhaps even as far as he’d like to, I think mostly because he has an idea of the Church that doesn’t easily admit the idea of change to it, and doesn’t admit the idea of failure and of sin,” Carroll said.
As the Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to John Paul II, his passing raises a question in the Jewish community: Will his successor continue to bring the Vatican closer to what the pope called Christianity’s “elder brother,” or return to the distant relations that characterized interfaith ties for centuries?
Future Jewish-Catholic relations will depend on the background of the new pope and political current in high Vatican circles, Jewish leaders predicted.
“There’s always concern that people will revert to older patterns,” said David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee’s interfaith affairs director.
Elcott said John Paul II changed the tenor of Jewish-Catholic relations from often outright hostility to an exchange between friends.
“These negative areas are very different than the negative areas that took place in the past,” Elcott said. “Any healthy relationship has areas where we disagree about implementation of strategy.”
The issues of conflict between Jews and the Vatican during John Paul II’s papacy “are important, but they are not fundamental” to Jewish-Catholic relations, said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who served 30 years as director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Department of Interfaith Affairs. He said John Paul II left a “unique legacy.”
He repeatedly called anti-Semitism “ ‘a sin,’ ” Rabbi Klenicki said. “That was a revolution.”
“He did more to improve the Jewish-Catholic relationship than any other pope in history,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser.
During Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Rome’s major synagogue in 1986, he stated that “the covenant between the Jewish people and God is irrevocable,” Rabbi Rudin recalled. The rabbi said that declaration, a standard part of Jewish belief, was intended for an audience beyond the synagogue walls.
“He wasn’t talking to Jews; he was talking to Catholics,” Rabbi Rudin said.The synagogue visit, and John Paul II’s comments there, were part of a pattern of remarks the pope made during his years in the papacy, Rabbi Rudin said.
“Wherever he went, he said anti-Semitism is a sin against God. That is very strong theological language,” Rabbi Rudin said. “It put the question of combating anti-Semitism into the mainstream of the Catholic world.”
Views Shaped By War
The pope’s feelings about Jews, discrimination against Jews and the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust were shaped by his wartime experiences.
Born to a tailor father and schoolteacher mother in Widowice, a southern Polish town of 10,000 that was 20 percent Jewish, Wojtyla would say later that he was raised in a family that did not share the anti-Semitic leanings of many neighbors. His family had a Jewish landlord. As a child interested in poetry, theater and religion, he had Jewish schoolmates, Jewish soccer teammates and a Jewish girlfriend.
“I belong to the generation for which relationships with Jews was a daily occurrence,” he commented after becoming pope. “I have in front of my eyes the numerous worshippers who during their holidays passed on their way to pray.”
Jerzy Kluger, a lifelong friend who later served as an intermediary between the Vatican and Israel, said, “The people in the Vatican do not know Jews, and previous popes did not know Jews, but this pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people.”
Wojtyla was a student at Krakow’s prestigious Jagiellonian University when classes were canceled in 1939 following Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. He worked as a stonecutter in a quarry and studied clandestinely for the priesthood.
During the war he observed the deportation of Jews. While not part of an organized resistance movement, Jews testified after the war that he would escort Jewish friends through the streets to protect them and fend off anti-Semitic Poles.
The man who would become John Paul II began his priesthood as an assistant pastor in Krakow in 1949.
In 1956, after vandalism at a few Jewish cemeteries there, he persuaded local university students to repair the damage. And a theological journal under his auspices published articles on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Holocaust, a rarity in communist Eastern Europe or in any Catholic community.
As a bishop John Paul II visited Israel with a group of his colleagues in 1963, and during the debates in St. Peter’s Basilica over the Vatican II declarations about the Jews in the early 1960s spoke in favor of a new, more equitable relationship with the Jewish community.
Carroll described a friend’s memories of the sometimes raucous discussions: “All of a sudden down at the far end of the table a man began to speak — a voice that he had not heard in any debate. He knew that it was a different voice because of the heavy accent. And the man spoke of the Church’s responsibility to change its relationship to Jews.
“And my friend said to me, ‘I lifted up my head. I thought, who is this prophet?’ And I looked down and it was this young bishop from Poland. And no one even knew his name. And it was the first intervention he made at the council. And it was very important,” Carroll said.
In 1968, during a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland that forced some 34,000 Jews to leave the country, John Paul II preached, in veiled terms, against the violence. The next year, as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish community, he visited a Krakow synagogue.
For John Paul II, Carroll said, Jews were not a historical and theological abstraction but friends and neighbors he had known.
“The absence of Jews in Poland he feels as a presence, quite clearly,” Carroll said on the PBS show “Frontline.”
“For him, it was devastating what happened in Poland” to the Jews in the Holocaust, Rabbi Klenicki said. “He was concerned about the social being of Jews.”
“His understanding of anti-Semitism and the Shoah was not just with the head — he understood it with his heart,” Rabbi Rudin said. “He always used the Hebrew word Shoah.”
Granot accompanied a delegation of American Jewish leaders who met Pope John Paul II in the Vatican before his visit to Miami in 1987. The Jewish representatives traveled to Rome to clarify the pope’s position on his controversial audience with Waldheim, the Austrian president and former UN secretary-general who had concealed his Nazi background.
The meeting with the pope, which had taken place a few months earlier, upset many members of the Jewish community. Granot, the son of Polish Jews, greeted John Paul II in Polish.
“He asked where my parents are from,” Granot recalled.
“Krakow,” Granot answered.“Have you ever visited Krakow?” the pope asked Granot, who said he had not.
John Paul II began to extol Krakow’s Jewish past.“You have to be very proud of your history,” he told Granot. A few minutes later, Granot said, “He turned back to me. He said, ‘Don’t forget to visit Krakow.’ ”
Early On, An Unknown
Much of John Paul II’s pre-papacy relationship with the Jewish community was unknown to many Jewish observers when he became pope in 1978, resulting in initial skepticism.
“There is little in the new Pope’s past to justify sweeping expectations of his reign with reference to interreligious ecumenism or his attitude toward Israel and the Jewish people,” stated a 1978 editorial in The Jewish Week and The American Examiner, as the paper was then known.
As the outgoing but dogmatic leader who brought the Gospel to more than 110 countries and helped topple communism, while remaining steadfast on many social issues and the inerrancy of Catholic teachings, John Paul II quickly showed a new, more accessible face of the Church. In style and spirit, he was a successor to John XXIII, who had fostered closer ties with Jews.
One of John Paul II’s first moves in Jewish-Catholic relations was his visit to Auschwitz in 1979, a decade before communism fell.
At the death camp, he first prayed at a Hebrew monument, which commemorated the Jewish victims of the Nazis, before walking to a Polish-language marker dedicated to the Poles who perished in the war.
“It was a subtle rebuke of communism’s attempt to deny the Jewish reality of the Shoah,” wrote Eugene Fisher of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As pope, John Paul II became more outspoken on the Church’s responsibility to the Jewish community than he had been.
“The answer lies here in Poland,” said Feliks Tych, director of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw. “In leaving Poland, Wojtyla freed himself to act, to start the re-education program regarding the Jews in the Church, to forge diplomatic ties with Israel, to write the document on the Shoah.”
Rabbi Rudin said such papal acts as the 1991 invocation that asked for “forgiveness for Christian passivity during the Holocaust” and the 1998 document “We Remember: A Reflection of the Shoah,” which confessed that “the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not what might have been expected from Christ’s followers,” framed the Church’s new relationship with Jews.
Fisher said John Paul II was sensitive to the meaning of small, symbolic acts.
One meeting with the delegation of American Jewish leaders was held at the pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. In the center of the room, on a small table, were Hebrew and Latin copies of the Bible. Just the Jewish scriptures, Fisher said, no New Testament.
A circle of chairs was arranged around the room.“All the chairs were exactly the same,” Fisher said. The pope “sat in one of the chairs in the circle,” signifying that he was meeting the rabbis as theological equals.
It will probably take months to determine if the new pope will take the Church’s relationship with the Jewish community in a new direction or continue John Paul II’s. Some of his initiatives are certain to remain, observers said.
Fisher said the changes instituted by the John Paul II are “a permanent part” of the church, “part of the institution.”
“The legacy of this pope will remain forever,” Granot said. “He has set the basis for a very strong dialogue.Rabbi Klenicki said the substantive changes in Jewish-Catholic relations, like political recognition of Israel, will not be affected by the death of one individual, even one as influential as John Paul II.
“Nothing will be removed that is written on official documents,” Rabbi Klenicki said.
But the Vatican’s style may change, he said. Such symbolic moves as a visit to a synagogue or frequent references to the Holocaust may become rare.
“These gestures may disappear,” Rabbi Klenicki said. “It depends on his successor and his interests.”