By A. JAMES RUDIN
c. 2011 Religion News Service
(RNS) When the Vatican beatifies someone and places the person just one step away from sainthood, it usually attracts scant attention among Jews because it is correctly perceived as an internal church process.
But the recent beatification — and likely canonization — of the late Pope John Paul II is different. The Jewish community remembers the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla as the best pope the Jews ever had.
The throngs of people who turned out for the May 1 beatification have all gone home, and now the search begins for a second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession. As he moves along the path to sainthood, Jews are among those cheering him on.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, there were an estimated 3.5 million Polish Jews, the inheritors of a rich religious, intellectual and cultural life. At the time, Jews represented 10 percent of Poland’s population, and about a quarter of young Karol’s classmates in his hometown of Wadowice.
By the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazis had murdered 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, half of them Polish Jews.
Because Poland was the Nazis’ chief killing field, Wojtyla required no university seminars or academic papers to instruct him about the radical evil of the Holocaust. Poland was “Ground Zero” for mass murder. Wadowice is not far from the infamous Auschwitz death camp, and the future pope saw Jewish friends and neighbors arrested and transported to the gas chambers.
John Paul’s election in 1978 was initially met with skepticism by many Jews, who feared he might reflect the long record of anti-Semitism that had poisoned much of Jewish life in Poland. How wrong they were.
The tragedy of the Holocaust and a warm personal relationship with Jews were both etched into the pope’s head and heart. During his 27-year pontificate, John Paul’s positive actions earned him an honored place in Jewish history.
In April 1986, John Paul visited Rome’s Grand Synagogue, the first papal visit to a Jewish house of worship in nearly 2,000 years. In his address, the pope reminded the world’s 1 billion Catholics that Jews are “our elder brothers in faith,” and said the covenant God made with the Jews at Mt. Sinai is “irrevocable.”
In 1994, the Vatican and the State of Israel established full diplomatic relations. The official document spoke of “combating all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance.” The same year, John Paul hosted a Vatican concert to commemorate the Holocaust. I attended that historic event, and I will never forget the pope’s emotional call to never forget the Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
John Paul’s personal intervention helped resolve the toxic 10-year crisis over a Carmelite convent located inside the Auschwitz building where the Germans stored the poison gas used to murder Jews.
In March 1998, the Vatican released “We Remember,” a reflection on the Holocaust. In that document, the pope, who years earlier had called anti-Semitism a sin against God, urged Catholics — and indeed, all Christians — “to examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time.”
Two years later and in failing health, John Paul, the most traveled pope in history, visited Israel. While in the Jewish state, he was a guest of the Israeli president and the Chief Rabbinate. John Paul spent time at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where he met with Polish Jewish survivors.
The most enduring image of the papal visit to Israel, and perhaps of John Paul’s entire papacy, came when the ailing pontiff slowly and painfully walked to Judaism’s holiest site: the Western Wall. In an unforgettable moment, John Paul placed a personal prayer into a crevice of the sacred wall seeking forgiveness for Christian hostility towards Jews and Judaism:
“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.”
And that, even though it won’t help make him a saint, is miracle enough for me.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.)