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Pope John Paul II

(1920 - 2005)


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John Paul II was Pope of Roman Catholic church from 1978 to 2005. He succeeded Pope John Paul I and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI.

John Paul II (born May 18, 1920; died April 2, 2005) was born as Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland. He was studying at University of Cracow when the Germans invaded Poland, effectively closing the university, and under the occupation he worked in a stone quarry, continuing his involvement with theatrical and literary circles that engaged in anti-Nazi resistance, and possibly helping Jews escape, while studying in an "underground" seminary. He established early and lasting friendships with Jews.

Ordained a priest in 1946, Wojtla was sent to Rome, where he earned a doctorate of theology, with a thesis on St. John of the Cross. He then took a doctorate in philosophy at the Jagellonian University, with a dissertation on Max Scheler. He published numerous theological and philosophical articles and books of poetry, the latter often under the name "Jawien."

Consecrated auxiliary bishop of Cracow in 1958, he participated in the Second Vatican Council, where he was credited with the compromise that led to the document "The Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes). He became archbishop of Cracow in 1964 and cardinal in 1967.

As pope, he continued the theological renewal begun by the Council, although his approaches were not without controversy, and wrote numerous encyclicals on Christ, human dignity, and various social issues. His support for the Polish labor movement, Solidarity, and other such groups in Eastern Europe, even while maintaining a diplomatic Ostpolitik, is credited as one of the factors leading to the collapse of Soviet hegemony. He traveled more widely throughout the world than any of his predecessors, invariably meeting with Christian, Jewish, and other leaders of major world religions, many of whom he brought together in prayer in late 1986 in Assisi, Italy. In 1981 he survived an assassin's bullet. He worked assiduously for the cause of world peace.

John Paul was the first pope to visit a death camp, Auschwitz, in 1979. The Communist monument there, as at Babi Yar, intentionally obscured the Jewish and Polish specificities of the camp, making it a memorial to humanity in general. Stones in different languages were set up representing the countries from which the victims came. The Pope stopped and prayed at only two: first the Hebrew inscription, and then the Polish, subtly rebuking the memorial's ideology.

In 1986, the Pope again made history by being the first since St. Peter to visit and pray in a synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Rome. He had condemned anti-Semitism as "sinful" earlier that year in Austria. At the synagogue, he affirmed the validity of Jewish faith and God's covenant with the Jews:

"The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain way intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship, which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it can be said that you are our elder brothers."

Though some Jews thought this referred to Jacob usurping the divine promise from his elder brother, Esau, the reference was most likely to the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father reassures the elder son: "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours" (Luke 15:31).

In 1987, the Pope met with the Jewish leadership of both Poland, which had the world's largest Jewish community before World War II, and the United States. In Warsaw, he called Jewish witness to the Shoah a prophetic "warning voice for all humanity." In the U.S. that same year, the pope called for the integration of Holocaust education on every level of Catholic education and for the world to recognize the right of the Jews "to a homeland," an important point in view of the infamous United Nations resolution attacking Zionism as "racism."

When the newly reunited Germany sent its first ambassador to the Vatican in 1990, the pope for the first time spoke of "the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people" that for Christians "must be an enduring call to repentance." In December 1993, the Vatican and Israel entered into a "Fundamental Agreement," exchanging ambassadors the next summer. In 1994, too, the pope presided over a Shoah Day concert within the Vatican itself, yet another "first."

Controversies, many of them centered on Holocaust issues, also marked John Paul's long pontificate. The longest-running, the Auschwitz Convent controversy, began in early 1986 and was not resolved until 1993 when the pope personally sent a letter to the Carmelite nuns to move to the new property a short distance away which had been built for them. They left, however, the large cross that had been in their garden, which came to be surrounded by numerous smaller crosses erected by some Polish Catholics. These were removed by the government on the eve of the pope's eighth trip to Poland in 1999, though the large cross remains.

In summer 1987, only weeks before the Pope was to meet with representatives of the U.S. Jewish community, the world's largest, a papal audience was arranged for the president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, who had just been revealed to have been a member of the Nazi Party during World War II, creating a crisis that was resolved only by a meeting of Jewish leaders with the Pope at Castel Gandalfo ten days before the scheduled Miami meeting.

Controversies have also revolved around candidates for sainthood, such as Edith Stein (a Roman Catholic nun who was a Jewish convert to Catholicism and died in Auschwitz because she was defined by the Nazis as a Jew), Pius XI (who raised in his household as a Catholic a Jewish boy forcibly taken from his parents on the word of a family maid that she had baptized him), Catherine Emmerich (a 19th century nun whose reputed visions of Jesus' death typified and intensified anti-Jewish elements found in passion plays in the period), Queen Isabella of Spain (who ordered the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and institutionalized the Inquisition), and Pius XII (who served as pope during World War II).

In February of 2000, the pope led a Liturgy of Repentance in which he articulated the Church's repentance for the sins against Jews by Catholics over the centuries. Later that month the Pope made an historic pilgrimage to Israel. One of his predecessors, Paul VI , had very briefly come to Jerusalem in 1964, entering Jerusalem without acknowledging the borders of the State of Israel, but this was the first extensive visit by a pope to the Jewish state. As was his custom, the pope kissed the soil of the land. The pope visited Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, meeting there with a group of survivors. Finally, he went to the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jerusalem Temple. There, he placed a prayer of petition to the God of Israel.

John Paul died on April 2, 2005. He was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

E. Fisher & L. Klenicki (ed.), Spiritual Pilgrimage: Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism 19791995 (1995); New Catholic Encyclopedia Jubilee Volume: The Wojtyla Years (2001).

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