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MANNA 87 Editorial: The New Pope And The Jews


For many progressive Jews the worldwide response to Pope John Paul II’s death was disconcerting. It could not but remind us of the vast disparity in numbers between Catholics and Jews.

But the unease was about more than numbers.

The lying-in-state, the calls for sainthood, the tomb in the crypt as a place of pilgrimage — human beings play a different role in Christianity from Judaism. Perhaps there is a partial parallel with the death of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. That, too, made progressive Jews uncomfortable.

The media was unequivocal in hailing Pope John Paul II as one of the great figures of our time. There is no doubt that his opposition to communism and his determination to be with Catholics all over the globe justified the remarkable tributes. Yet his was a papacy that did not face numbers of key issues that the Catholic Church will have to tackle — contraception, the role of women, priestly celibacy, the hierarchical structure of the church itself. Could it be said that the press mirrors large sections of society who yearn for religion to reassert simple faith and old truths in the face of the moral and spiritual complexities of our time?

Yet in one respect Pope John Paul II was a radical and an innovator. In his relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people he recast Catholic theology in a way that was not only courageous but deeply compassionate.

Early in his papacy Pope John Paul II acknowledged the “misunderstandings, errors, indeed offences” that had been committed against Jews and declared: “The terrible persecutions suffered by the Jews in different periods of history have finally opened the eyes of many and appalled many people’s hearts. Christians have taken the right path, that of justice and brotherhood, in seeking to come together with their Semitic brethren, respectfully and perseveringly, in the common heritage that all value so highly.”

Judaism and Christianity share “a common root” and are linked by “the design of the God of the Covenant”. Yet they are different and dialogue should lead not to conversion but to greater mutual understanding.

When he paid an historic visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986, Pope John Paul II declared that: “With Judaism we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers”. He was unequivocal that “no ancestral or collective blame can be imputed to the Jews as a people for ‘what happened in Christ’s passion’ — not indiscriminately to the Jews of that time, not to those who came afterwards, nor to those of today”. Jews are “beloved of God”, who has called them with an “irrevocable calling”.

Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem in 2000 and prayed at the Western Wall. Six years earlier he had declared: “It must be understood that Jews, who for 2000 years were dispersed among the nations of the world, have decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right”.

In his determination to transform the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and Christians and Jews, Pope John Paul II was building upon the work of his predecessor Pope John XXIII. It was Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II Council, which in 1965, gave birth to the defining statement Nostra Aetate which Pope John Paul II explained and developed.

What is significant about the two men is that they both had direct and intimate experience of Jewish persecution and Jewish suffering.

Pope John XXIII, as Angelo Roncalli, was the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and played a decisive part in the rescue of many Bulgarian and Romanian Jews. This would have been striking in its own right but stands out as a clarion call in the face of the silence from the Vatican itself.

Pope John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, which in 1939 was the home of 3.3 million Jews, more than 10% of the population. He witnessed the extermination of an entire people and culture and later became Bishop of Kraków, a city which had long enjoyed a great and historic Jewish quarter. Speaking to representatives of the remnant Jewish community, he said: “The human past does not disappear completely. The history of the Poles and Jews, even though there are so few Jews currently living on Polish soil, is still very much present in the lives of Jews, as well as in the lives of Poles. I brought this to the attention of those of my countrymen who visited me in Rome on September 29, 1990. The nation which lived with us for many generations has remained with us even after the horrible death of millions of its sons and daughters”, I said. “Together we wait the day of judgement and resurrection”.

Karol Wojtyla’s radical conviction with regard to Jews and Judaism was something both of the heart and the head. It flowed from experience and empathy, as radical and courageous convictions so often do.

By the time you read this editorial, we will know who will succeed Pope John Paul II. It is unlikely that person will have such intimate knowledge and experience of Jews and Jewish history. Indeed, it is unlikely that there will ever be another Pope moulded by the experiences of Roncalli and Wojtyla.

Therein lies a daunting challenge.

Catholicism and Judaism are different — in numbers and in other ways. The Catholic Church has its own challenging agenda posed not the least by the huge cultural differences between South America or the Far East on the one hand and Western Europe and the United States on the other. Relations between Christianity and Islam, both missionary religions, is another.

Can the process of dialogue and reconciliation that Popes John XXIII and John Paul II initiated be maintained with a Catholic leadership who may have very different backgrounds, experiences and agendas? Will Jews, particularly Jews as Karol Wojtyla understood and encountered them, figure on the Vatican radar screen in the future?

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