April 14, 2024
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As a rule, Jews should have little interest in the canonization process of Roman Catholic saints. We don’t worship saints, we revere the righteous, yet we recognize that there is “no righteous person who has not sinned.” And yet, we should not only make note of the decision by Pope Francis I to make Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII saints, we should celebrate it. It bodes well for Jewish-Catholic relations under this new Pontiff.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the greatest strides in Catholic-Jewish relations in the entire two millennia of that relationship were made by the initiative of two Popes who were innocent during the Shoah and yet who felt responsible for the Holocaust—Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

A word about Pope John XXIII: As Papal Nuncio in Istanbul, then-Archbishop Roncalli worked with the delegates of the Yishuv, the Jewish leadership in Palestine—the name of pre-state Israel—to warn Jews of Hungary and to rescue some who could be rescued. He established direct community with its formal leaders in Turkey and even met with clandestine operatives. He did not, as widely rumored, offer false Baptismal certificates but rather something a bit more clever, letters indicating that the holder of this certificate was a “co-religionists and fellow countryman of Jesus” and “should be entitled to Vatican protection.” Notice the language—co-religionist and fellow countryman, is another reference to Jews. Should be entitled to Vatican protection does not mean that the holder is entitled to Vatican protection. It suggests a tone of aspiration rather than actual fact. He wrote to Bulgarian leaders, where he had previously served, urging them to protect their Jews.

Elected as an interim caretaker Pope after the long Pontificate of Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII met with the French historian Julius Isaac and studied the history of antisemitism. He then took the bold initiative of calling for Vatican II and among its important initiatives were Nostra Aetate, which used the tools of Catholic teaching to revamp the Church’s teaching on the Jews and then institutionalized that transformation by changing Good Friday Liturgy and its Scriptural reading.

In essence, Vatican II taught what critical historical scholarship had established long ago, that Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion of Christ. Sin was. If Christ died for our sins, if his death were a sacrificial atonement, then without human sin, there would be no need for such atonement. Furthermore, Good Friday liturgy eliminated the reference to perfidious Jews and the reading of Matthew XXXVII, in which Jews are said to have accepted responsibility on themselves and their children for the crucifixion.

Teaching was combined with gesture, doctrine with human contact. Pope John XXIII stopped at the great synagogue of Rome and greeted its worshipers leaving Sabbath prayers, wishing them a “good Shabbat.” It was an unprecedented step for the Bishop of Rome, the heir of St. Peter, to visit the Jews of Rome. It had simply never been done before.

Thus, Pope John XXIII came to terms with 1878 years of Jewish life after the birth of Jesus. He stopped short of recognizing the State of Israel, a vital move that Jewish life had taken in the post-Holocaust era.

Pope John Paul II

Enter Pope John Paul II who took the transformations initiated by Pope John XXIII through another series of steps.

A word of biography is in order. John Paul II is probably the first Pope who could truthfully say that “some of my best friends are Jewish” and mean it literally. He was in direct contact with Jews during his pre-priesthood days and knew them from the soccer fields, where he often played on the Jewish side when they were short a player, to university and from the theater;  one local was among his closest friend and remained a friend throughout the Pontiff’s long life. He even took an apartment in Rome to be near the Pope, once he was elected.

Yaffa Eliach had documented in legendary form that when still a Parish priest, Karol Józef Wojtyła refused to baptize Jewish children, who had been saved by Polish-Roman Catholic families when their parents were deported in 1942-43, unless they were informed that their biological parents had been Jews. This was an act of singular integrity and in fact, it was not quite in keeping with the instructions of the post-war Church that was interested in saving the souls of all people—including, perhaps even especially Jewish children. It was also an act of courage as his parishioners must have felt this conversation burdensome. Allow me to explain.

If you trusted a neighbor with your child’s life and your child had a certain type of appearance, meaning that they did not look “too Jewish” and they were pre-verbal, Jewish parents might ask a Polish family to take care of their child when they were about to be deported. The child could not be told that they were Jewish then, as the information would be lethal to the child and also to the family that was sheltering him. If the parents returned, the child might not remember them or even recognize them. Often the child had been treated with love and responded in kind, feeling his/her parents as strangers who had abandoned him—remember feelings are not logical—a nd loving his adopted family. Even if the parents survived, the child often wanted to stay put. Even after the war, it remained dangerous to reveal to a child that they were Jewish as this might lead to the parents being labeled as “Jew lovers” and to their ostracism. So such information was not easily revealed but Father Wyojtla insisted.

As Pope, John Paul II visited the Roman synagogue and worshipped with the Jewish community. He treated the synagogue as a house of God with the all the respect that was accorded a house of God and the Chief Rabbi of Rome as a fellow religious leader. He established diplomatic relations with Israel and went to Israel in 2000 visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. At Yad Vashem he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians—not of Christianity—and made the all important statement that antisemitism is anti-Christian. A man of the theater, he well understood that the media is the message and his words would echo throughout the Christian world.

Though he did not say everything I would have liked for him to have said, what he said was all important and the place from which he uttered these statement was even more symbolic. Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism and by his visit recognized the form that Judaism took after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He placed a prayer into the Wall as is the custom of the devout. His visit to the office of the Chief Rabbinate, certainly not the most ecumenical of religious offices in the world, was also compelling. Prepared by Jewish history and memory, the rabbis expected polemics, great disputations. Instead he greeted them as one religious leader to another. The rabbis were shocked by how moved they were by the Pope’s visit.

Not all problems were solved, not all issues were settled but there was tremendous progress and unprecedented warmth in Jewish-Roman Catholic relations.

For me the most important impact of all these changes has been their institutionalization, including the changes of liturgy and of educational instruction. A new generation has arisen that knows little about the anti-Jewish teachings that characterized the Church for almost all of its history.  Having taught at two Jesuit Universities, I know this firsthand.

Thus, for me the Roman Catholic Church is the most important model of what a religious institution can do when it confronts a religious teaching that could be used to vilify the other and decides to deemphasize those teachings, however central, reinterpret them and reemphasize other part of the tradition that embrace the other. By deed, be gesture, by proclamation, by catechism, by human relationship and above all by religious conviction that is what the Roman Catholic Church has done in the last third of the 20th century.

The decision to confer sainthood on these two men should be celebrated. Notice also, that unlike his predecessor, the new Pope did not push for the Canonization of Pope Pious XII, the pious, acetic, conservative Pope who served during the Holocaust. But that is the subject of another essay.

By Michael Berenbaum

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