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October 24, 2003 - Image 61

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-10-24

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anti-Semitic policies of
totalitarian communism.
Born in 1920 in the
southern Polish town of
Wadowice, near Krakow,
Wojtyla grew up at a time
when Poland was the rich,
vital heartland of European
Jewry. The country's 3.5
million Jews represented 10
percent of Poland's overall
population. Wadowice,
itself, was more than 25
percent Jewish, and the future pope had
Jewish friends, neighbors and class-
During World War II, Poland
became the Nazis' main killing field.
Half of the 6 million Jews murdered in
the Holocaust were Polish Jews —
including the future pope's friends and
neighbors. Wojtyla himself worked in a
Nazi slave labor camp and studied for
the priesthood clandestinely.
After the war, the future pope's dis-
covery of what had happened at
Auschwitz, located only a few miles
from his home, "marked him for life
and would eventually
make him, perhaps
despite himself, a rev-
olutionary figure in
the Catholic Church,"
James Carroll, author
of Constantine's Sword:
The Church and the
Jews — A History,
wrote in a recent arti-
cle in the Boston
Given this history,
it was highly symbolic
that in 1979, on John
Paul's first visit to Poland after his elec-
tion as pope, he knelt in prayer at
Auschwitz-Birkenau as a sign of com-
memoration for the Jews killed there.
At an ecumenical prayer meeting in
Assisi, Italy, in 1993, the pope told a
Jewish participant that "the memory of
the Shoah must animate our teaching
and preaching for the sake of future
Throughout his papacy, John Paul
repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism as
a sin against God and humanity, and,
on his more than 100 trips around the
globe, he sought to meet with Jewish
leaders. He also issued unprecedented


contrition for past Christian hostility
and violence toward Jews.
"His experiences in Poland during
the war certainly affected his outreach
to the Jews," Allan Gale said.

Outreach To Jews

The most dramatic of his many meet-
ings with Jews took place in April 1986
when he left the Vatican and crossed
the Tiber River to visit the Great
Synagogue in Rome, becoming the first
pope to visit a Jewish house of worship
since the apostle Peter,. considered the
first pope.


Vashem Holocaust memorial and, at
the Western Wall, he bowed his head in
prayer and slipped a prayer note into
the cracks between the stones. In the
note, the pope wrote, "We are deeply
saddened by the behavior of those who
in the course of history have caused
these children of yours to suffer and,
asking your forgiveness, we wish to
commit ourselves to genuine brother-
hood with the People of the Covenant."
"He was the first pope to meet offi-
cially with Israeli leaders during a visit,
extending the legitimacy of the Vatican
to Israel and establishing formal diplo-

"I cannot presume to predict what a future pope might
do, but I pray that future leaders of the Roman Catholic
church will continue Pope John Paul II's transformation
of Christian teachings about Jews and Judaism."

— Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Adat Shalom Synagogue

At the synagogue, the pope spoke of
the "irrevocable covenant" between
God and the Jews. With Judaism; he
said, "we have a relationship that we do
not have with any other religion. You
are our dearly beloved brothers and in a
certain way, it may be said that you are
our elder brothers."
At the end of 1993, the pope took
another unprecedented step, overseeing
the formal establishment of full diplo-
matic relations between Israel and the
Vatican, 45 years after the founding of
the Jewish state.
The pope's visit to Israel in March
2000 was historic. He visited the Yad

matic relations," Gale said.
But the pope's Mideast visit was not
without its low points. When he visited
Syria, some criticized the pope for
remaining passive when President
Bashar al-Assad engaged in anti-Semitic
rhetoric. The pope also angered some
Israelis with remarks they considered
too pro-Palestinian. Allan Gale found
this "one of several disappointments,
pointing out that the Jewish relation-
ship with him was not perfect."

Lasting Legacy?

Since the pope's historic visit, however,

the emergence of what
some observers have termed
a "new European anti-
Semitism" — linked to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict
— has dogged Catholic-
Jewish relations in what the
pope calls "Christian
Other issues also have
continued to pester
Catholic-Jewish ties,
including differences over
the wartime role of Pope Pius XII,
whom the Vatican wants to beatify but
whom critics accuse of ignoring pleas to
save Jews during the Holocaust. There
also is an ongoing internal debate with-
in the Catholic hierarchy as to whether
the church as an institution is responsi-
ble for anti-Semitism, or whether
responsibility for the social ill rests with
As the pope's health visibly declines,
observers are questioning whether his
positive teachings regarding Jews will
endure and whether they will trickle
down to the more than one billion
Catholics around the globe.
"This is a major challenge for the
post-John Paul II church," said Rabbi
A. James Rudin, the AJCommittee's
senior adviser on inter-religious affairs.
"To have his church retreat from the
gains John Paul II has achieved in
building mutual respect and under-
standing between Catholics and Jews
would represent a huge setback, and an
insult to this remarkable pope."
The Rev. Norbert Hofmann, secre-
tary for the Vatican's Commission for
Religions Relations with the Jews, says
the pope's legacy should be safe. "The
whole Catholic Church stands for these
changes" regarding Jews, Hofmann
said, "not only Pope John Paul II.
"Of course, he was and is the most
visible agent of these changes and one
of his most important pastoral activities
was the reconciliation with the Jewish
people." There are "irritations" in
Catholic-Jewish ties from time to time,
he said, "but they can't stop the process
of reconciliation set by the church and
the pope."
The hope, said Gale is that "his suc-
cessor will follow in his footsteps in
regard to improving Catholic-Jewish




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