Pope John Paul II and the Jews…

From a Haaretz article on Pope John Paul and the things he did to improve Vatican-Jewish relations before he passed away in April 2005:

Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church are convening at the Vatican today to choose the successor to John Paul II, who has been called “the best pope ever for the Jews.” After nearly 2,000 years of relations between popes and Judaism, which many times have seen the flow of Jewish blood, there can be no doubt that it is extremely important to the Jews who heads the Church.The attitude of the new pope toward the Jews will be expressed in three areas: the theological – contacts between the Church and the Jewish faith; the diplomatic – relations of the Church with Israel; and the ideological-political – relations between Christianity and Islam and the Muslim world.



Since more than 100 of the 115 cardinals with the right to vote were appointed by John Paul II, many observers believe that the opinions of his successor on theological issues, including his attitude toward Judaism, will approximate those of the late pope. The list of pro-Jewish acts taken by the late pope was widely publicized even before his death: He expressed remorse for the role of Christians in the Holocaust, visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, prayed by the Western Wall, established diplomatic relations with Israel, described the Jews as “our elder brothers” – in other words, a legitimate religion alongside Christianity, and not an “other” that must be triumphed over – and visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, the first visit of its type in Vatican history. No less significant were his numerous meetings with rabbis and Jewish leaders, and his encouragement for the establishment of departments of Jewish studies (as a culture, not as departments for the study of the Hebrew language or the Bible) at numerous Catholic universities. One of his first acts as pope was to visit and pray at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He published the “We Remember” letter in which he asked forgiveness for the suffering caused by Catholics to Jews throughout history and during the Holocaust in particular. The great ideological upheaval toward the Jews was generated by the Vatican II Conference in the 1960s, and the “Nostra Aetate” document that was issued at the end of the conference. This document recognized Judaism as a legitimate religion alongside Christianity, as opposed to a religion supplanted by Christianity. But it was John Paul II who acted to implement fully its conclusions.

Qualified remorse

There were – and still remain – controversial points in the relations between John Paul and the Jews. In his expressions of remorse, for instance, he took care to relate to the actions and the guilt of Christian believers, and not of the Church itself. He also defended Pius XII, who was accused of maintaining silence in the face of the Holocaust, and even acted to promote the beatification of Pius XII. John Paul also announced the beatification of Pius IX, considered one of the most anti-Semitic popes in modern times. He conferred knighthood on Kurt Waldheim and blessed Yasser Arafat and Tariq Aziz, the (Christian) foreign minister of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, these deeds hold negligible weight when compared to his pro-Jewish steps.

Relations between the Catholic Church and Islam could become one of the toughest challenges awaiting the next pope, along with formulation of the church perspective on poverty, the use of condoms in the war on AIDS, biotechnology issues (cloning, artificial insemination), birth control and the growing shortage of priests, especially in the Third World.

The attitude toward Islam, which did not receive any change in status from Vatican II (as Judaism did) is particularly important in Africa, where Christianity is spreading faster than anywhere else but where it is in direct competition (and conflict) with Islam. Opinions diverge within the higher echelons of the Church hierarchy between those who favor the dialogue espoused by John Paul and those who see the need for a more rigid approach, in Africa, Asia and Europe. The former group favors contacts with “moderate Islam” and the latter says that there is no choice but for a head-on collision with Islam, due to increased extremism within the religion. Almost certainly, a choice between the two approaches, or even an emphasis on one of them, will also affect relations with Israel and Judaism.

The cardinals may select a surprise candidate, but several names reappear in many of the predictions. The Jewish press in the United States, for instance, has repeatedly referred to the following cardinals:

Francis Arinze, 72, from Nigeria. Served as the Church’s liaison with the Muslim world. Has not had contacts with Judaism or Jewish communities or acquaintances with Jewish public figures.

Godfried Danneels, 71, the archbishop of Brussels, who maintains contacts with Belgian Jewry and was among those who brought about an end to the affair in which a Carmelite monastery was being constructed next to the gates of Auschwitz, which caused an uproar among Jews around the world.

Claudio Hummes, 70, from Brazil, who has more than once come out against blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. “We must be very careful in our catechism and our teaching not to teach in any way an interpretation of the Gospel that can stimulate anti-Semitism,” Hummes said a few months ago at a conference in New York.

Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, from Honduras, who recently apologized for having blamed “Jewish influence in the media” for focusing public attention on the pedophilia scandal in the Church “in order to deflect attention from the Middle East.”

Wilfred Napier, 63, from South Africa, who is not known to have had any contacts with Jews.

Joseph Ratzinger, 77, one of the heads of the Vatican leadership, a conservative and a close aide to the late pope. He deserted from the German army during World War II. He is well versed in Jewish issues and admitted that “a certain insufficient resistance by Christians to this atrocity (the Holocaust) is explained by the anti-Judaism present in the souls of more than a few Christians.”

Christoph Schoenborn, 60, from Austria, who during his visit to Jerusalem a few weeks ago emphasized the presence of Jews in the Holy Land since the days of the Bible. In 1996, he declared that “mortal hatred against Israel is also aimed against the Church – against the God of Israel, father of Jesus Christ.” Schoenborn has close relations with the leaders of the Jewish community of Vienna.

Angelo Sodano, 77, the Vatican secretary of state, who accompanied John Paul on his visit to Israel and participated in most of the pope’s meetings with Jewish leaders. Sodano is well-versed in subjects pertaining to relations between the Church and the State of Israel.

Eduardo Martinez Somalo, 78, from Spain, a member of the highest echelon of the Vatican bureaucracy. Little is known about his contacts with Jews or Israel.

Dionigi Tettamanzi, 71, an Italian, wrote drafts of the late pope’s proclamations, mainly in the field of life science. Has contacts with Jewish leaders and public figures. A photograph of Tettamanzi appeared on the Chabad Web site, showing him visiting a Sukkah at the Chabad branch in Milan.

Two in first place

The Reuters news agency reports that the front-runners favored by the bookies are Ratzinger and French Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. In Ireland, Lustiger’s odds have improved in the last few days, from 20:1 to 4:1, and he shares first place with Ratzinger.

Lustiger, who was hidden during the Holocaust period by Christians, converted to Christianity but considers himself a “Catholic Jew” and was until recently the archbishop of Paris. Since he is over 80, he may not take part in the voting for the next pope. If elected – and in the Vatican there are few who share the opinion of the bookmakers in Ireland – he would be the first pope (or the second, if the rumors are true about Pope Anacletus II in the Middle Ages) of Jewish descent since St. Peter, otherwise known as Simon the fisherman, a disciple of Jesus, who is considered the founder of the Church and the first pope.

In the meantime, a movement in support of declaring John Paul II a saint has already formed, and there are numerous reports of miracles he wrought. A miracle attributed to John Paul was the saving of a Jewish millionaire who received the pope’s blessing and had a cancerous brain tumor vanish within hours.

There is evidently no end to miracles. One of the most admiring articles about John Paul II’s attitude toward Jews appeared last week in the Iranian newspaper “Tehran Times.” It said that the pope, by placing a prayer in the Western Wall, “acknowledged that this uniquely Jewish method of communicating with the Almighty is valid” and said “he accepted that Judaism’s covenant with God is still in force …. It ended 2000 years of Christian rejection of Judaism.”


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