By JERRY FILTEAU, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
The April 2 death of Pope John Paul II brought an absolutely unprecedented outpouring of condolences, thanks, praise and blessing from religious leaders of the Jewish community.
Their comments indicated how deeply Catholic-Jewish relations have been affected worldwide by the Catholic Church’s first Polish pope—who as a youth personally experienced the tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jewish people in World War II and as pope transformed that experience into an intense Catholic theological reflection on God’s eternal covenant with Jews and the sinfulness of Christian anti-Semitism.
“Nobody has done as much to transform Catholic-Jewish relations as John Paul II. He will be forever remembered as a great hero of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation,” said Rabbi David Rosen, Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee.
“The Jewish community has lost a treasured friend,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“No other pope in history has devoted so much time and attention to Jews, whom he described as ‘our elder brother,’” said Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, director of the National Council of Synagogues, which represents North American Conservative and Reform synagogal and rabbinical organizations.
“Pope John Paul II revolutionized Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“He was the pivotal figure in the significant improvement of Catholic-Jewish relations in our time, and he played an unprecedented, historic role in promoting dialogue and reconciliation between religions and peoples,” said the National Polish American-Jewish American Council.
“He was a pope for the ages,” said the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
“The historic and landmark contributions that he made to Catholic-Jewish relations were pioneering and invaluable,” the union said.
“We will lovingly remember his historic visits to the Great Synagogue in Rome, a concentration camp in Auschwitz (Poland) and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as he stood with us in spiritual solidarity,” said the New York Board of Rabbis. “Declaring anti-Semitism a sin against God and humanity, the pope repeatedly reminded the world that we could never again remain silent while people perish because of their race or religion.”
“Shalom, shalom, shalom,” the board said to the late pope, repeating his final words to a delegation of 130 Jews including New York rabbis that he met at the Vatican less than three months before his death.
At that meeting, “in an extremely moving moment, three rabbis of different denominations blessed this sacred soul,” the board said. “This was a most fitting gesture for an extraordinary individual who blessed us with his voice and his vision.”
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Department of Jewish Affairs and a professor of Christian-Jewish studies at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in New Jersey, said: “John Paul II was the first bishop (of Rome) to visit a synagogue in almost 2,000 years. He repeatedly stated that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and that there is no room in Christianity for anti-Semitic interpretations of Christian texts. Under this pope the church asked for repentance for her role in the Shoah (Holocaust) and recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Rosenthal also cited the issuance of new church directives on Catholic teaching and preaching about Jews and Judaism under Pope John Paul II and the pope’s prayer at the Western Wall for God’s forgiveness for Christian sins against Jews.
While noting many of the same actions, Foxman commented that “most importantly, the pope rejected the destructive concept of supersessionism,” which is the view that the new covenant of Christianity superseded or replaced God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and he “has recognized the special relationship between Christianity and the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Yoffie cited the papal acts mentioned by others and also the pope’s insistence “on the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jews.”
“The extent of the change that John Paul II wrought is expressed in the power and intensity of the language he used, calling on members of the church to do ‘teshuvah’—repentance—for sins committed against the Jewish people and urging them to remember the unique relationship that exists between the church and the Jewish religion,” he said.
He recalled that Pope John Paul urged Catholics and Jews to be a blessing to one another and said, “In the Jewish tradition we say of those who have left us: ‘May his memory be a blessing.’ We say this today of John Paul II.”