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By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — What Pope John Paul II did to advance reconciliation between Catholics and Jews will go down in history as one of the hallmarks of his papacy.

Four moments stand out particularly for their symbolism:

— 1979. Back in Poland for the first time since his election to the papacy, he prayed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He paused at the Hebrew inscription commemorating the Jews killed there and said, “It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.”

— 1986. He went to a Rome synagogue to pray with the city’s Jewish community. Noting Christianity’s unique bond with Judaism, he said, “You are our beloved brothers … you are our elder brothers” in the faith of Abraham.

— 1994. He attended a Vatican-hosted concert commemorating the Holocaust, Hitler’s World War II effort to exterminate all Jews. “We risk making the victims of the most atrocious deaths die again if we do not have a passion for justice,” he said.

Pope John Paul II places a signed note with typed words into a crack in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine in Jerusalem's Old City.

— 2000. After meditating at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, he placed in the wall a written prayer to God expressing deep sadness for all wrongs done to Jews by Christians. It ended, “Asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

Under Pope John Paul, the Vatican published guidelines on how Catholics should teach and preach about Jews and Judaism and issued a major document on the Holocaust that expressed repentance for the Christians’ failure to oppose the persecution of Jews. In 2000 the pope presided at a liturgy of repentance for the wrongs of Catholics toward Jews.

Less than five months into his papacy, he met with leading representatives of world Judaism. In that important first meeting, he reiterated the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of anti-Semitism and pledged to foster Catholic-Jewish dialogue and “do everything in my power for the peace of that land which is holy for you as it is for us.”

Meetings with representatives of the local Jewish community were a regular feature in his travels to 129 countries around the world.

Eugene Fisher, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said: “Pope John Paul met with more Jews and Jewish communities in more places around the world than all the previous popes since Peter.”

The most striking of these encounters was the pope’s one-mile trip across the Tiber River in 1986 to the Great Synagogue of Rome. It was believed to be the first time since Peter that a pope had entered the Rome synagogue, and symbolically it marked a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Visiting Germany in 1980, he summarized the proper Catholic approach to Judaism with the words: “Who meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism.” He described Jews as “the people of God of the Old Covenant never retracted by God.”

In his weeklong jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the pope visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and met with Holocaust survivors, including about 30 from his Polish home town of Wadowice. He greeted some by name.

Three days later the sight of the aging, stooped pope praying as he pressed a trembling hand against the ancient stones of the Western Wall struck a chord with Jews around the world.

When Jews make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray at the wall and leave prayer notes in its crevices, the notes usually blow away in a few days. The pope’s note was removed and placed on display at the Yad Vashem museum.

As a boy, Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, played with Jewish classmates in Wadowice. His papal dealings with Jews and Judaism reflected that lifelong personal relationship.

In 1993, when he had a historic meeting with Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the rabbi said afterward that the pope and he and his older brother spent most of the time reminiscing about growing up in Poland. The rabbi’s older brother, Naphtali Lau-Laviv, had been born in Wadowice, and their mother’s uncle had been rabbi there before World War II.

The pope remembered “names, addresses, houses, buildings, everything,” Rabbi Lau said.

Rabbi Lau said at one point he asked the pope about a story of a young Polish priest after the war who had refused a Polish Catholic couple’s request to baptize a Jewish orphan they had adopted, out of respect for the wishes of the boy’s dead parents. The pope told him he was that priest and still recalled the episode with emotion, the rabbi said.

In his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Pope John Paul said of his relations with Jews, “I remember, above all, the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish.”

Among them he recalled Jerzy Kluger, a boyhood friend with whom he renewed his friendship after he was elected pope. Their meetings and correspondence were the subject of a book by veteran Vatican journalist Gian Franco Svidercoschi, “Letter to a Jewish Friend.”

Pope John Paul II addresses the largest Jewish audience in history of the Vatican.

Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious affairs adviser to the American Jewish Committee, said that during the 1994 Vatican concert commemorating the Shoah — the Hebrew word for the Holocaust — the pope “was not in Rome; he was in Poland in 1939,” hearing the voices of Jews who were murdered.

“In his talk afterward, he said, ‘They are crying out to us: Do not forget us, do not forget us,'” the rabbi said.

The church’s policy toward Jews “was not an academic exercise for him,” Rabbi Rudin added. “He understood Jews not with his head only, but with his heart.”

Such personal connections help explain the extraordinary depth of the pope’s commitment to building Catholic-Jewish bridges. But it takes another step to comprehend the theological insights into a positive Catholic appreciation of Judaism that developed and solidified as part of a changing Catholic cultural perspective during his papacy.

Some of those insights were honed in the fires of controversy.

The pope’s meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders in Miami in September 1987 exemplified the tensions that accompanied Catholic-Jewish rapprochement during his papacy.

In the months before his 1987 U.S. visit, many Jewish leaders — already angered by a 1982 papal meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — called for a boycott in Miami because of the pope’s audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose World War II ties to a Nazi military unit involved in war crimes had just become public knowledge.

Only an emergency summit of American Jewish leaders with the pope at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, arranged by Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore — then bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., and episcopal moderator of U.S. Catholic-Jewish relations — saved the Miami meeting.

In Miami, the pope repeated the promise he made at Castel Gandolfo, that the Vatican would publish a Catholic statement on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Even that document, issued with a papal introduction 11 years later, drew mixed reaction.

It won universal approval for its “mea culpa” about past Christian discrimination against the Jews and its strong condemnation of the practices and ideas that led to the Nazis’ “final solution.”

But many Jewish leaders said they were disappointed with the document’s distinction between Christian “anti-Judaism” and Nazi “anti-Semitism” and its defense of Pope Pius XII’s policies during World War II.

Another source of serious Catholic-Jewish tensions in the late 1980s was the existence of a Carmelite convent at the edge of Auschwitz and the planting of memorial crosses by Polish Catholics at the former concentration camp to commemorate the 1.5 million people gassed to death there and in nearby Birkenau. Since most of those exterminated were Jewish, many Jews found the crosses, a symbol of Christianity, offensive.

Pope John Paul intervened to get the crosses removed and to help the Carmelite nuns move, turning their former convent into an interreligious prayer and study center.

After a five-year hiatus caused by the controversies, the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee resumed its meetings in 1990.

At the pope’s urging, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, overcoming long-standing arguments in upper church circles that the Vatican should not recognize the state of Israel until the status of Jerusalem and of sites sacred to Christianity was resolved. This offered a diplomatic channel to deal with controversies that often included interreligious elements.

In 1999 the Vatican and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation formed a joint commission of scholars to study questions about Pope Pius and the Jews in World War II. After studying published materials for a year, the commission suspended its work amid controversy over access to still-closed Vatican archives from that period.

In 2003, the pope ordered the early opening of some archival material related to Pope Pius and the war, so scholars could better evaluate the period.