At the outset, I would like to say that I did not know Pope John Paul II personally. I was, however, in Jerusalem when he undertook his unforgettable journey, and I remember that, on television, we followed his stations along that historical visit to Jerusalem with fascination. It was as if each one of us knew him personally. While speaking to many, his words and gestures touched you personally.
This is the essence of charisma.
There have been personalities, throughout history, who appear as giants already during their lifetime. Like comets, they leave a silver strand of memories behind them.
I was asked to speak today about one, but not an insignificant humanitarian dimension of Pope John Paul's life, namely his attitude towards Jews and their state of Israel. Allow me to begin, however, with one example of this humane attitude, but not an example associated with anything Jewish. I refer, rather, to the attitude John Paul the second revealed towards his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, an attitude that truly exemplifies the magnitude of his compassion. Pope John Paul II is quoted, after the assassination attempt, as calling upon the faithful to “pray for my brother…whom I have sincerely forgiven.” His longtime personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislao Dziwisz, recently confirmed that the late Pontiff had written a letter to Ali Agca. The letter — written in Italian — directed towards Agca the question: “Why did you shoot me, if we both believe in the only God?"
This letter was never sent.
But there was more to come. Immediately after Christmas, on December 27th 1983, the Pope visited the Rebibbia prison in Rome where, Agca was held. In his speech before the convicted, the Pope said:
"Today I could meet my attacker and I reiterated him my forgiveness, as I made, immediately as soon as it was possible. We met as men and as brothers; and all the events of our lives bring us to this brotherhood."
John Paul II received the relatives of Agca several times. Such was the magnitude of his human compassion, which serves as an exemplary conduct for all humanity.
It seems to me that Pope John Paul II shaped his genuine attitude towards Jews when he was still being refered to as Lolek … in his youth. He grew up in Wadowicze, a provincial town not far from Cracow, which 25% of its population was Jewish. Some of those Jews grew up as neighbors to the Woitilla family. One of them became a friend of Lolek throughout his life time: Jerzy Kluger. His attitude was therefore shaped long before Shoa decimated the Jewish people by an entire third. His personal experience from his formative years as an adult was of Jews integrated into what he understood was the make-up of the Polish national identity. The result was that he was rarely understood when he spoke of six million Polish victims during his Auschwitz visit, not mentioning the Jews separately, as a specific group of victims. We should not forget that also Polish clergy and intelligentsia were regarded by the Nazis as a prime target to be annihilated.
This almost biographical remark did not prevent Paul John II to pave new venues for building and expanding bridges towards the survivors of the Shoa – the remnants of the Jewish people. Having said that, we should not forget that the design for a theological rapprochement between Catholics and Jews had already been laid in 1965 with the conciliar declaration of Nostrae Aetate. John Paul’s personal imprints are visible in several initiatives from during his tenure as Pope. Personal encounters, humane gestures and solid documentation were marking his intensive preoccupation with matters Jewish. One of the first was what is known as Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, which was published in 1985 by the Commission for religious relations with the Jews, headed at that time by Johannes Cardinal Willebrands. This document integrated the theological changes with regard to the Jewish people, as they were first proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in his dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium:
"In the first place, we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers, this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. "
In 1980, the newly elected John Paul II reiterated this before the Jewish leadership in Cologne, Germany: the people of God of the Old Testament, which has never been revoked…
The Notes in many aspects reflect a theological conservatism, which insists on drawing a theological divide between Catholics and Jews. Church and Judaism cannot then be seen as two parallel ways of salvation and the Church must witness to Christ as the Redeemer for all. This essential claim, however, enabled the development of an intensive inter-faith dialogue without blurring the different identities and principles of faith. It also expelled illusions of what such a dialogue might achieve. Catholic Liberals and Reform Jews tried to achieve more. Liberals do not belong today to mainstream Catholicism and thus shares the fate of the Reform movement in Judaism. Nevertheless, the Notes brought, for the first time ever in a Vatican document, a paragraph which defined expressis verbis an attitude towards the State of Israel. On the questions how to understand Jewish history and the state of Israel it says:
"The history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. It continued, especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness - often heroic - of its fidelity to the one God and to "exalt him in the presence of all the living" (Tobit 13:4), while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the hearts of their hope (Passover Seder). Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in Biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship. The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law."
The document appreciates Jewish history and the religiously based attachment of the Jews to the biblical land. At the same time, it dissociated this legitimate inclination from Israel, as a political entity, as a state whose parameters of action are not divine but belong to categories of international law and common principles. Not every Jew would endorse such a distinction, but it was the first time the State of Israel was considered by the Curia worth a reflection in a way that was not totally negative, as in the nineteen fifties or sixties.
This happened under the tenure of Papa Wojtilla. But there was more to come. On April 14th, 1986 Pope John Paul II paid, for the first time ever, a Papal visit to a synagogue and chose for that precedent the Grand Temple of Rome. The place was well chosen. Nowhere but in Rome is the relationship between the papacy and Jews so burdened with historical traumata. For centuries, Jews were the subjects for good and for worst of the Papal state.
It was here that he uttered his remarkable words:
"The Jewish religion is not external to us, but in a certain sense belongs internally to our religion. Therefore, we have relations to her which we have nowhere else with any other religion. You are our privileged brothers, in a certain way, we could say, our elder brothers. "( Siete i nostri fratelli prediletti e, in un certo modo, si potrebbe dire i nostri fratelli maggiori).
This linguistic coin, fratelli maggiori, has been of enormous value in shaping the Catholic attitude towards Jews for decades since. Only recently, the present Pope widened the perspective and infused for Jews the term of our parents. I will not exclude the possibility that he intended, by this newly coined term, to avoid polemics about the diverse biblical experiences among elder and younger brothers. This intimacy and the sentiments of Christianity being an offshoot of the Jewish roots have the potential of producing irritation among Jews. It is one famous case was when Pope John Paul II declared in front of Jewish leaders in Cologne on May 1st,1987, that the Church was venerating a daughter of Israel who remained united with the crucified Jesus Christ and maintained her identity as a Jewess, united with her people in faithfulness and love under the Nazi prosecution. These remarks expressed his conviction that this intimate relations between Judaism and Christianity is a blessing for both parties. At the same time, this intimate affection produced the most important Vatican document concerning the Catholic attitude towards the Shoa. It is known as the document issued on the 16th of March 1998, "We remember: A reflection on the Shoa", by the Commission for religious relations with the Jews, which was headed at that time by Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy.
No doubt, we can detect the spirit of Pope John Paul II behind it. His promotion of the need for compassion and repentance, beyond his personal affection and sensibility to the fate of the Jews, was the solid soil on which the document was formed. An additional consideration was the urgent need to combat Negotianism – the revisionism that negates the existence of the Shoa. That development could not have been imagined when Nostra Aetate was issued in 1965. The document was preceded by a papal letter directed to Cardinal Cassidy, and we quote:
"On numerous occasions during my Pontificate I have recalled with a sense of deep sorrow, the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Second World War. The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close. As we prepare for the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, the Church is aware that the joy of a Jubilee is above all the joy that is based on the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbor. Therefore she encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls them to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time. It is my fervent hope that the document: We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, which the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has prepared under your direction, will indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices. May it enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible. May the Lord of history guide the efforts of Catholics and Jews and all men and women of goodwill as they work together for a world of true respect for the life and dignity of every human being, for all have been created in the image and likeness of God".
The document is not only a call for repentance (teshuva). It asks burning questions about the impact of Anti-Judaism on the failing solidarity with Jews among Christians during times of distress. Anti-Semitism, however, had already been rejected as unchristian since the tenure of Pius XI (1922-1938). The dramatic change in We remember was the bold rejection of Anti-Judaism. Towards the end of the document, we are reminded of a duty which obligates both Jews and Christians alike:
We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.
The Nineties of the last century saw a dramatic turn in the relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. My impression is that, in the tempo of approaching the correct moment of establishing diplomatic relations, the Pope was guided mainly by the advice of the State Secretariat. In matters of Jewish – Catholic relations, he relied much more on his own judgment. But events, such as the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and the following start of the Oslo peace process left those who opposed the establishment of diplomatic relations with less and less arguments. Pope John Paul seized the opportunity and brought about the decision to establish diplomatic relations, a move which was seen by some outside the Curia as overdue.
His visit to the Holy Land and to Israel was, not only the long desired target of a pastoral visit and pilgrimage. The pope also took the oportunity to provide his imprint on how he would like to develop the newly established relations with the Jewish state. Upon his arrival at Ben- Gurion airport on March 21st 2000, he said:
Many things have changed in relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel since my predecessor Pope Paul VI came here in 1964. The establishment of diplomatic relations between us in 1994 set a seal on efforts to open an era of dialogue on questions of common interest concerning religious freedom, relations between Church and State and, more generally, relations between Christians and Jews. On another level, world opinion follows with close attention the peace process, which finds all the peoples of the region involved in the difficult search for a lasting peace with justice for all. With new-found openness towards one another, Christians and Jews together must make courageous efforts to remove all forms of prejudice. We must strive always and everywhere to present the true face of the Jews and of Judaism, as likewise of Christians and of Christianity.
As a consequence of his commitment to further the Jewish–Catholic dialogue, after visiting the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in Heichal Shelomo in Jerusalem, he initiated a new venue for such a dialogue, which was convened for the first time in 2003. I refer to the inter-faith dialogue between the Holy See and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It gave the diplomatic relations an additional dimension, which is today not only political but also religious. Pope John Paul endorsed also the already existing cooperation program between the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The doctrinal document issued in 2001 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission corroborated the importance of the Tanach (OT) as a fundamental part of continuity between Synagogue and Church.
During the Papal visit his impact on Jews in Israel was overwhelmingly friendly, yes even enthusiastic. His visit to Yad Vashem strengthened this intimate sentiment of being visited by a benevolent friend to the Jewish people. His state of health was of constant concern already in 2000 during his visit. When he passed away, many amongst us Jews felt an unexplained emotion, as if they had been left alone as orphans. Israel was represented at the highest possible level during the funeral of Pope John Paul II. It was very important for the Jewish state to pay respects for a Pope who had created new venues for relations and understanding among Catholics and Jews. It was also clear to us that the Jewish state would pay respect during the ceremony of beatification by being represented by an official delegation at a ministerial level. I would like to conclude our appreciation by quoting John Paul's prayer at the western wall in Jerusalem, the place which Jews consider to be closest to God:
God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened by the behaviour 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 brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.
May God bless his memory.