John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in the Polish town of Wadowice, where he had Jewish friends and neighbors and was an eyewitness to the Holocaust. A few months before the war ended, Wojtyla rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a train station by carrying her to the rail car in which he was traveling, feeding her and covering her with his coat. Later, he would affect even more Jewish lives.
While Wojtyla was a bishop, he took part in the historic Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII, which modernized aspects of church practice and doctrine. The Council also radically changed the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people when it issued the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965, which cleared Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus, renounced its traditional claim that Jews had been rejected by God, condemned anti-Semitism, and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews. As Pope, John Paul II would turn these words into actions.
After his election as pope in October 1978, John Paul often devoted his energy to improving relations between Jews and Catholics. He frequently met with Jewish leaders, repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust, and established diplomatic relations with Israel.
One of his first acts toward reconciliation occurred during his visit to Poland in 1979 when he knelt and prayed at Auschwitz. Seven years later, on April 13, 1986, he made an even more dramatic trip, this one just across the Tiber River, to Rome’s Great Synagogue, becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship. There he warmly embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians.
“In his speech, everyone felt his love, his affection,” Toaff recalled. “He made a tie between Judaism and Christianity and, in doing so, he found a way to move us all.’
On the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Pope John Paul II issued this appeal:
As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world (cf. Gen. 12:2 ff.). This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another (L'Osservatore Romano, August 17, 1993).
In 1994, John Paul established full diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. He said, “For the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel and who preserve in that land such precious testimonies to their history and their faith, we must ask for the desired security and the due tranquillity that are the prerogative of every nation . . .”
The Pope also was instrumental in the publication of “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” the 1998 document expressing the Church's “deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age.”
He visited Israel in 2000, publicly apologizing for the persecution of Jews by Catholics over the centuries, including the Holocaust, and depositing a note pleading for forgiveness in a crack in the Western Wall.
While many of John Paul’s teachings about the Jews have become official church policy, even he recognized that differences would remain. In a 1985 speech, the Pope took some credit for helping bury ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes about Jews, but he also acknowledged that Catholics and Jews would continue to have disagreements. “Love involves understanding,” he said. “It also involves frankness and the freedom to disagree in a brotherly way where there are reasons for it."
In addition, while John Paul was regarded warmly by Jews, not all of his statements and actions were sympathetic. He was, for example, frequently critical of Israeli actions, and largely silent on the mistreatment of Christians by Arabs and Muslims. In February 2000, the Pope and Yasser Arafat issued a joint condemnation of any unilateral decision that would “change the unique character of Jerusalem,” terming such a decision “legally and morally invalid.” Arafat and the Pope, meeting in the Vatican, called for an international status to be granted to Jerusalem.
The Pope was also unwilling to criticize his predecessors or accept the church’s institutional responsibility for anti-Semitism in the past. He was also criticized for efforts to Christianize the Holocaust as, for example, when he visited Auschwitz and compared the camp to Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified. The decision to canonize the Jewish-born nun, Edith Stein, who was murdered in Auschwitz, and celebrate the date of her beatification as “Holocaust Day” was also controversial.
Jews were also dismayed when John Paul beatified Pius IX, who was known for countenancing the abduction and conversion to Catholicism of a Jewish child in 1858. John Paul was also criticized for refusing to fully open the Vatican archives to allow scholars to examine the actions of Pope Pius XII, who John Paul also supported for sainthood, during the Holocaust.
Still, when John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84, he made one final gesture to the Jews when he mentioned “the rabbi of Rome.” Toaff and John Paul’s longtime secretary were the only living people mentioned in the will.
Toaff called the reference a “significant and profound gesture for Jews” and “an indication to the Catholic world.” John Paul, he said, “wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries.”
Sources: Washington Post, (April 8, 2005); JTA, (April 11, 2005); Arutz Sheva, MSN.com, (April 3, 2005). Photos from Israel National Photo Collection.