Monday, April 04, 2005


This article was written by Rabbi David Krishev of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As a Jewish community, we extend our condolences to the Catholic
faithful around the world on the loss of Pope John Paul II. Though some
in the Jewish community have criticized him for not being strong enough
in condemning past actions of the Church during the Shoah, most in the
Jewish community acknowledge that he has used the high power of his
office to sanctify God's name by devoting more time and attention to
repairing the Church's relationship with their "older brothers" than
other Pope in history. Below is a reflection by Rabbi Gilbert S.
Rosenthal, director of The National Council of Synagogues:
The passing of Pope John Paul II triggers a flood of reflections
and observations among Jews as well as Catholics and with good reason.
distinguished Catholic scholar friend observed to me some years ago
when the papacy of John Paul II is evaluated by scholars, they will
conclude that perhaps his greatest achievement was his repairing
relations with the Jewish people. No other pope in history has devoted
so much time and attention to Jews, whom he described as "our elder
brother," and Judaism as the late and lamented John Paul II.
Undoubtedly, that is the result of his unique background. Karol
Wojtyla, as he was then known, grew up in the Polish town of Wadowice
whose population of 10,000 included 2,000 Jews. He lived with them,
them well, played soccer with them. Indeed. I had lunch with one of his
close soccer buddies who had survived the Holocaust and was fascinated
by his observations and reminisces of his old friend. The future pope
knew the Holocaust first hand as he watched his friends and neighbors
disappear into the maw of the death machine that wiped out 6-million
When he ascended the throne of the papacy in 1978, one of his
priorities was to continue the work of building a new relationship with
Jews begun by Pope John XXIII at Vatican Council II and carried on by
Pope Paul VI. Clearly he was determined to turn a new page in
Catholic-Jewish relations, to rectify some of the wrongs, to expunge
teaching of contempt from Catholic doctrines and catechisms, and to
chart a new course for the two siblings. One of his first foreign
was to Auschwitz in 1979 where he prayed for the victims of the Nazi
Holocaust and begged forgiveness for Christianity's role in that
tragedy. In 1986, he become the first pope ever (so far as we know) to
visit a synagogue-the great synagogue in Rome where he and the Chief
Rabbi sat together before the Holy Ark containing the Torah and chatted
amiably. He denounced anti-Semitism as "a sin against God and
calling for "the purification of memory" and insisting that Christians
must perform "teshuvah-repentance" for the 19- centuries of hatred that
prepared the soil for the Holocaust. The Holocaust memorial concert he
convened in the Vatican in 1994 with the Krakow Philharmonic conducted
by Maestro Gilbert Levine was particularly memorable in this regard.
A series of important papers and documents was issued in the wake
of Pope John Paul II's initiative. These documents were designed to
clarify and amplify the revolutionary teachings of Nostra Aetate part
the landmark statement on relations with the Jews issued by the Second
Vatican Council in October of 1975. They include statements on how to
implement the teachings of Vatican II on the Jews (1974), notes on the
correct way of teaching and preaching about Judaism (1985), reflections
on the Shoah (Holocaust) (1998), and the place of the Sacred Scriptures
of the Jewish people in the Christian Bible (2002). In December 1993,
the Vatican extended official diplomatic recognition to the State of
Israel. In explaining his reason for this diplomatic initiative, the
Pope stated, "It must be understood that Jews, who for 2,000 years,
dispersed among the nations of the world have decided to return to the
land of their ancestors. This is their right."
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of Pope John Paul II's concern
for the Jewish people came in 2000 with his memorable visit to Israel.
He paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, begging
forgiveness for the indifference or complicity of so many Christians in
that tragedy. Then he went to the Western Wall, the holiest site of
Judaism, the remnant of the outer wall that ringed Jerusalem's Temple,
destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and inserted a note in a crevice in
the Wall which stated, "God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his
descendants to bring Your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened
the behavior of those who, in he course of history, have caused these
children of Yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to
commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the
Somehow, he always found time in his impossible schedule to meet
Jewish leaders and rabbis whether it was Israel's Chief Rabbi Lau in
1993 or a group of American Jews just a few weeks ago. I had the
privilege of meeting with him in New York in October 1995 in an
gathering at the residence of the late Cardinal John O'Connor. It was
unforgettably poignant moment.
Unquestionably, the long pontificate of John Paul II has bequeathed
many legacies to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But the one that
will stand out in my mind forever, and with good reason, was his
and passionate campaign to undo the many centuries of hatred and
suspicion that marked Catholic-Jewish relations and his dogged
determination that we must enter a new era of mutual respect, dialogue
and trust. He summarized his views in these words: "As Christians and
Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to
a blessing for the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is
therefore necessary for us Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing
to one another." May his memory be an eternal blessing.

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