Saint John Paul II’s Outreach to the Jewish Community

Saint John Paul II’s Outreach to the Jewish Community

Rabbi Jack Bemporad

Director, The Center for Interreligious Understanding

Teaneck, New Jersey, USA

Talk given at the Centro Pro Unione, Rome, Italy

Thursday, 16 May 2019

There is very little question that Saint Pope John Paul II was not just a great man for our time, but that he was a great man for all time. He was a man who had an enormous impact on the world; a man who was loved and revered by so many, not just by the Catholic faithful or the Polish people, a people who have every right to be proud of their greatest citizen, but also and not least of all, loved and revered by the Jewish people.

He was loved and revered by the Jewish people because they felt he understood their suffering. They felt that he knew them. He knew them from within. Many people think that what people most want is to be praised, admired, recognized, or respected. That is only partially true. In reality, what people want is to be known, they want other persons to understand them, to know what concerns them, what ails them; who they truly are; what their hopes, dreams, and tribulations are and have been. Of course people want to be respected and appreciated, but most of all they want to be known and Pope John Paul II was the person who fulfilled this Jewish desire. He understood the soul of the Jewish people and from early in his life we have ample testimony of this.

One such story about Loleck (that was his nick name) was told to a journalist by Regina Reisenfeld, the former Ginka Beer, from her home in Israel: she had been Loleck’s childhood friend. (John Paul II, The Biography, Tad Szulc Pocket Books, New York, 1995, pages 67-69)

“I knew I was very popular with Polish boys and girls, but there was anti-Semitism too. There was only one family who never showed any racial hostility toward us, and that was Lolek and his dad. . . I went to say goodbye to Lolek and his father. I spoke to him frankly and said that very few Poles were like him. He was very upset. But Lolek was even more upset than his father. He did not say a word, but his face went very red. I said farewell to him as kindly as I could, but he was so moved that he could not find a single word in reply. So I just shook the father’s hand and left.”

Ginka saw Karol again fifty years after she left Wadowice. She was in a group of former and present Wadowice residents attending the Wednesday General Audience at St. Peter’s Square, and the pope recognized her when some of her friends shouted her name. Ginka asked him if he really remembered her, and, as she recounts it, John Paul II replied, “Of course I do. You are Regina. We lived in the same house. How is your sister, Helen?” He inquired about others in her family, and when she told him that her mother had died in Oświecim and her father was killed in the Soviet Union, “He just looked at me, and there was deep compassion in his eyes…. He took both my hands and for almost two minutes he blessed me and prayed before me, just holding my hands in his hands. There were thousands of people in the Square, but for just a few seconds there were just the two of us.”

Since he lived among Jews and was friendly with many, Pope John Paul II himself has related stories of his close relationships with his Jewish friends and neighbors, including Jerzy Kluger who remained his friend throughout his life (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, pages 96-97).

“…from the very first years of my life in my hometown, I remember, above all, the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish. I should mention my friendship at school with one of them, Jerzy Kluger—a friendship that has lasted from my school days to the present. I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school.”

“A few years ago Jerzy came to me to say that the place where the synagogue had stood should be honored with a special commemorative plaque. I must admit that in that moment we both felt a deep emotion. We saw faces of people we knew and cared for, and we recalled those Saturdays of our childhood and adolescence when the Jewish community of Wadowice gathered for prayer.”

Based on all the evidence, I am convinced that he felt a close connection and empathy with the Jewish people and their profound suffering. He understood Jewish suffering as a Pole who recognized that while over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed at the hands of the Soviets and the Nazis, three million Polish Jews were also killed, a staggering number coming as it was from a much smaller population.

This common suffering of Poles and Jews gave him a special sense of the Holocaust and the suffering it caused, especially since he profoundly understood the undeniable history and the connection the Polish Jews had to Poland. As the Polish Bishops’ Letter on the Jews, of January 20th, 1991 states, (A Polish Pastoral Letter on the Jews quoted the Pope about the common history of the Jews and Poles.

“There is still one other nation, one particular people: the people of the Patriarchs, of Moses, and the Prophets, the inheritors of the faith of Abraham . . . This people lived side by side with us for generations, on the same land, which became, as it were, a new fatherland of their diaspora.

“This people underwent the terrible death of millions of their sons and daughters. At first they were stigmatized in a particular way. Later, they were pushed into the ghetto in separate neighborhoods. Then they were taken to the gas chambers, they underwent death — only because they were children of this people.

“Murderers did this on our land — perhaps in order to dishonor it. One cannot dishonor a land by the death of innocent victims. Through such death a land becomes a sacred relic.”

When speaking to the Jewish community upon his return to Warsaw, the Pope underscored this concept when he poignantly said:

“Be sure dear brothers that the Poles, this Polish Church, is in a spirit of profound solidarity with you when she looks closely at the terrible reality of the extermination – the unconditional extermination – of your nation, an extermination carried out with premeditation…it was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination…Above all because of this terrible experience, through which you have become a loud warning voice for all humanity, for all nations, all the powers of this world, all systems and every person. More than anyone else, it is precisely you who have become this saving warning. I think that in this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves to be still the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the Church. And in this Church all peoples and nations feel united to you in this mission. Certainly they give great prominence to your nation and its suffering, its Holocaust, when they wish to speak a warning to individuals and to nations; in your name, the pope, too lifts up his voice in this warning. The Polish pope has a particular relationship with all this, because, along with you, he has in a certain sense lived all this here, in this land.” (Spiritual Pilgrimages, Pope John Paul II, Crossroads, New York, 1995, pages 98-99)

The suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, the Pope believes, must become a warning cry to all humanity so that such devastation will never happen again. He sees the suffering of the Jews within the context of the suffering servant passages of second Isaiah and the mission of Israel. Pope John Paul also connected this document to the examination of conscience and call to repentance, which the Pope stressed in his Tertio Millennio Adveniente (On the Coming of the Third Millennium) in preparation for the beginning of the Third Millennium. This preparation

“…is based on the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbor. Therefore she (the Church) 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.”

The Pope demonstrated his affection to the Jewish people by seeking out Jewish communities in the countries he visited to express greetings and support. And one cannot read his remarks during his historic visit to the Synagogue of Rome in April of 1986 without experiencing his deep-seated humility, but even more, a genuine collegiality where he stated for all the world to witness the profound, I would say miraculous changes in Catholic attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, codified in Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate.

He made clear that all attempts to use Christian teachings as an expression of contempt had to be rejected, and that a new standing and position had been established for the Jewish people and its religion; Judaism’s legitimate status was recognized after long being denied, a historic turning point. These changes actually satisfied philosopher Hermann Cohen’s requirements for Jewish legitimacy:

Neither the Enlightenment nor modern legislation has succeeded in removing from the Jews the burden placed upon them by the prejudice that they represent nothing but a foreign race. This prejudice can and will disappear only when the inherent worth of their religion is fully recognized.” (Angelicum, Volume 94, 2017 Fasciculus 1, Pontificia Studiorum Universitas A Sancto Thoma Aquinate in Urbe, page 28.)

Pope John Paul was also profoundly influenced by the renowned Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who was a great friend of the Jews, and referred to them as “elder brothers,” the very words used by the Pope. (See Reuben Ainsztein A Mickiewicz – “The Prophet of National Freedom,” Jewish Quarterly Vol.3 1955 Issue 2)

And wherever he traveled throughout the world (to over 100 countries) he reiterated to Jewish communities the profound teachings of Nostra Aetate, giving it the highest level of authority, equivalent to a dogmatic statement in the Church. In a statement to the Jewish representatives of the Jewish Community of Venezuela, the Pope stated,

‘I wish to confirm with utmost conviction (con toda mi profunda conviccion) that the teaching of the Church proclaimed during the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration Nostra Aetate… remains always for us, for the Catholic Church for the Episcopate… and for the Pope, a teaching which must be followed – a teaching which it is necessary to accept not merely as something fitting, but much more as an expression of the faith as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as a word of the divine wisdom.’ ” (see Osservatore Romano January 29, 1985)

No one could have predicted where the Pope’s personal outreach to the Jews, even Nostra Aetate, were leading. No one could have foreseen the extraordinary, in fact, miraculous step the Church would take under John Paul II’s guidance.

This unimaginable step was taken In September of 1990 in Prague, when Cardinal Edward Cassidy, under the direction of the Pope, asked forgiveness of the Jews for acts of anti-Judaism on the part of Christians. He used the Hebrew word Tshuvah, a word that means a new direction. The apology was spoken in a language that was directed to the hearts of Jews, not Christians.

This culminated in the Millennial Service of Repentance, during which the Catholic Church asked forgiveness for past acts in various areas. The prayer that Pope John Paull II read during this service was later inserted into the Wailing Wall by him during his historic visit to Israel:

“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: 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 brotherhood with the people of the covenant.” (Jerusalem, 26 March 2000)

I consider this act by Pope John Paul II to be one of the greatest of the Catholic Church. Maybe ever.

Following this act of repentance in Prague, Catholic Church representatives in European countries asked forgiveness, teshuvah of the Jews, and the first among them was Poland.

Pope John Paul II knew that, in addition to the profound suffering of the Jewish People during the Shoah, the two concerns that were uppermost in minds and hearts of the Jewish people were the recognition of Israel and missionizing.

With respect to missionizing, nothing could be clearer than his statement when he made his historic visit to the synagogue in Rome. There he said regarding the attachment of Jews to Christians:

(6) Quoted text from Historic Visit to the Synagogue of Rome (Op. cit. Spiritual Pilgrimages, page 60.)

“But this attachment is located in the order of faith, that is to say, in the free assent of the mind and the heart guided by the Spirit, and it can never be the object of exterior pressure, in one sense or the other. This is the reason why we wish to deepen dialogue in loyalty and friendship, in respect for one another’s intimate convictions, taking as a fundamental basis the elements of the revelation which we have in common, as a “great spiritual patrimony” [cf. Nostra Aetate, 4].

That Pope John Paul II was opposed to forced, or even coerced conversion is clearly demonstrated through the precious testimony recounted by journalist-author Lorenzo Gulli.

When John Paul II was a priest, a young child by the name of Schachne was brought to him to be baptized. He refused, since it was a Jewish child and his parents had entrusted him to this Christian couple named Yachowitch, with the express wish that he be reunited with his Jewish relatives in the case of their death. Many years later Mrs. Yachowitch wrote a letter to Schachne stating:

“I sought to baptize you and raise you as a Catholic, but a young priest prevented me. This priest became a bishop, then a Cardinal and now recently has been elected Pope.”

The Chief Rabbi of Bluzhov, when he learned of this story said,

“The ways of God are merciful, marvelous and unknown to men. Perhaps it was the merit to have saved this Jewish soul that has led him to his becoming Pope.”(Lorenzo Gulli Papa’s Wojtyla E “I Fratelli Maggiori” Nova Itenera 2005, Page 89.)

With respect to Israel, the Pope repeatedly affirmed the Jewish right to have a homeland and in dealing with the Jewish claim on Jerusalem, the Pope speaks much more particularly and more emotionally. He States, (7a) from Jews and Catholics in the Last Half Century, the Vatican Israel Accord, Editor Marshall Breger, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2004, Page 16.)

“Jews ardently love her and in every age venerate her memory, abundant as she is in many remains and monuments from the time of David who chose her as the capital, and of Solomon who built the Temple there. Therefore they turn their minds to her daily, one may say, and point to her as a sign of their nation.”

I believe that anyone reading the statement as to the Jewish bond with Jerusalem cannot help but notice the understanding Pope John Paul II had of the historical and emotional tie between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. It is certainly a significant addition to the remarks made in the homily at Otranto. But it is even more, since the Pope does not leave it there as he might well have done. Instead, after describing the significance of Jerusalem as a city of religious significance for the monotheistic faiths, he continues dealing with the contemporary situation and states in his 1984 statement Redemptionis Anno: (7) Quote from Joseph Cardinal Bernardin,Anti-Semitism: A Catholic Critique,”in Toward Greater Understanding, Anthony J. Cernera, Editor, Sacred Heart University Press, Connecticut, 1995, page 24.

“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 tranquility that is the prerogative of every nation and condition of life and of progress for every society.”

The attitude and understanding of the Jews is not simply a peculiarity of the Pope, but is rooted in his fundamental philosophy, which underscored the claims of humanity to life and life more abundant, and which also engaged his ecumenical and interreligious work and the belief that Jews and Christians share in that work.

He firmly believed that religions have a decisive role, not merely to preserve themselves and their traditions, but also and most important, to be the conscience of society and the voice of humanity. Pope John Paul II put it well in an address on the 22nd of March, 1984, to representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, when he affirmed:

“The encounter between Catholics and Jews is not a meeting of two ancient religions each going its own way, and not infrequently, in times past, in grievous and painful conflict. It is a meeting between brothers…Yet we are not meeting each other just for ourselves. We certainly try to know each other better and to understand better our respective distinctive identity and the close spiritual link between us. But, knowing each other, we discover still more what brings us together for a deeper concern for humanity at large.”Op. Cit. Page 31.

“…a deeper concern for humanity at large…” The Biblical injunction to the Jews, to “be a blessing” was, for the Pope, a mission and a responsibility that joined Catholics and Jews, and was a shared call to all humanity. Nowhere was his belief in this obligation clearer than in his first Encyclical and in his statement at the Atomic Bomb Museum in 1971.

In the Homily during the Holy Mass at Auschwitz-Birkenau on June 7, 1979 he said:

“Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope… from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Auschwitz, should have begun his first Encyclical with the words “Redemptor Hominis” and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man„ to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights that can so easily be trampled on and annihilated by his fellowmen? Is it enough to put man in a different uniform, arm him with the apparatus of violence? Is it enough to impose on him an ideology in which human rights are subjected to the demands of the system, completely subjected to them, so as in practice not to exist at all?

Then, in the same vein, with the same hope for humanity at the Peace Memorial Hall on February 25, 1981, at the Atomic Bomb Museum the Pope spoke to:

“The Heads of State and of Government, to those who hold political and economic power, I say: let us pledge ourselves to peace through justice; let us take a solemn decision, now, that war will never be tolerated or sought as a means of resolving differences; let us promise our fellow human beings that we will work untiringly for disarmament and the banishing of all nuclear weapons; Pope John Paul: let us replace violence and hate with confidence and caring.”

On January 18, 2005, the largest delegation of Rabbis and Jewish leaders went to the Vatican to thank him and bless his efforts for reconciliation.

He often said that Abraham was told to be a Blessing for the world and that Jews and Christians should begin by being a blessing for one another. We wanted to convey to him what a blessing he was to the Jewish people and that we wanted to pray for him, and we suggested the Priestly Blessing from Numbers. And at that last major audience, the Pope consented and two other rabbis and I pronounced the Priestly blessing over him.




Three months later this saint, this Pope, this giant of humanity left us. He was, and continues to be a blessing to all of us assembled here, and to the world, and impels us to make of our lives a blessing.