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Pope John Paul II: a Jewish perspective on a polish Catholic saint.

As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world... This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.

John Paul II, April 6, 1993 (1)

No other pope in history has done as much for interreligious relations between Jews and Christians to make this statement a reality. I was not surprised, then, when I read that Joseph Ehrenkranz, the Orthodox rabbi who is director for the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, called John Paul II a "chasid," a "tzaddik" ("saint") and "my rebbe." (2) As a child survivor of the Holocaust, I am deeply honored to write an essay to celebrate the sainthood of John Paul II, the most influential spiritual leader of our time--and to do so from a Jewish perspective.

I am well aware that some Jews do not believe in saints. (3) When Jews think about saints, they think of the process of beatification and canonization by which the Catholic Church declares a person to be a saint. In Judaism, there is no official religious body that can recognize someone as a saint, but there are saints in the Jewish tradition. When a person lives a holy, pious life, the Jewish community may come to recognize that human being as a saint, but how does Judaism define a saint? I would define a saint as a person who views Imitaio Dei as the ultimate purpose of life and who is totally committed to the following two commandments from the Hebrew Bible: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Dt. 6:4), and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lv. 19:17). The test of a holy life is the willingness to give up one's life for the sake of God. Saints are always ready to die for God. It is clear to me that, based on this definition of a saint, John Paul II certainly qualifies.

No other person has done more to heal the rift between Jews and Christians in the 2,000-year history of the church and the synagogue than Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow. This is an appropriate moment to celebrate the sainthood of John Paul II, as well as that of John XXIII, who said, "I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in" (4) and who called the Second Vatican Council, which issued the magnificent document, Nostra aetate. For me its most significant statement is the following:
   The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these
   religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct
   and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing
   in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless
   often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (Nostra
   aetate, no. 2) (5)

Then follows this extraordinary statement:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. (Nostra aetate, no. 2)

For the first time in 2,000 years the Church rejected the accusation that Jews were collectively to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. The document clearly states that "God holds the Jews most dear" (Nostra aetate, no. 4). It also deplores Antisemitism and affirms that Jesus Christ was born of a young Jewish girl of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary, and that most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ to the world were Jews.

No one has devoted more time and energy to making Nostra aetate a reality than did John Paul II. I agree with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz that "you could say that John Paul II's entire pontificate was a continual implementation of Vatican II." (6)

Karol Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, in a house owned by a Jewish family. The Jews of this small town constituted about twenty percent of the population, making John Paul II the first pope since Peter to have grown up among Jews and to have spoken Yiddish. Jews of Wadowice who knew the pope tell us that, even as a young man, he protected Jews from Antisemites. During World War II, Wojtyla was a member of an underground theater group that worked against the Nazis. It is still surprising that, when he became pope, he granted his first official audience to one of his oldest fi'iends, Jerzy Kluger, a Jew with whom he grew up in Wadowice. (7)

During John Paul II's twenty-six years as pope, despite some serious disagreements with the Vatican, Jews witnessed the pope's deep veneration and special love for the Jewish people. This love had a theological as well as a personal basis. The Jews were precious to him because, in his words, they continued to show the world "the beauty and profound truth of belief in the one God and Lord." For the pope, as well as for the Jews, the Hebrew Bible is Torah min ha-shamayim (Torah from heaven), which came into being by way of revelation. The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Catholic Church. In my study of the pope's work, it seems to me that he was in agreement with my great teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was born in Warsaw in 1907. Writing on the affinity of Jews and Christians, Heschel stated:
      Above all, while dogmas and forms of worship are divergent, God
   is the same. What unites us? A commitment to the Hebrew Bible as
   Holy Scripture. Faith in the Creator, the God of Abraham,
   commitment to many of His commandments, to justice and mercy, a
   sense of contrition, sensitivity to the sanctity of life and to the
   involvement of God in history, the conviction that without the holy
   the good will be defeated, prayer that history may not end before
   the end of days, and so much more. (8)

What clearly stands out for me is that the aim of both Heschel and John Paul II was to open human beings to a spiritual dimension that would make them more sensitive to transcendence and to inspire people to a way of thinking and acting that would lead them to live a holy life. The most striking affinity between Heschel and the pope is Heschel's assertion, which he repeated again and again, that God is in search of human beings. George Weigel, John Paul II's biographer, claimed that for John Paul II "the human story is not the story of man's search for God, but rather the story of God's search for us." (9)

One of the key ways in which John Paul II advanced Jewish-Catholic understanding was that, more than any other pope, he renounced the teaching of contempt for Jews. For him, Jews were not rejected by God. He said, "God does not reject his people." (10) He spoke of Antisemitism as "'a sin against God and humanity."'(11) For the pope, there was only one race: the human race. He supported the assertion in the 1974 Vatican Guidelines that Christians should strive to understand Jews as they "define themselves in the light of their own religious experience." (12)

Another factor in John Paul lI's effectiveness in improving relations with Judaism was his frequent acknowledgement that the Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust. In 1979, he visited Auschwitz. He spoke of Auschwitz as "one of the darkest and most tragic moments in history" (13) and also as "'the greatest tragedy of our century: the greatest trauma.'" (14)

Other indications of the pope's understanding of and sensitivity to the Holocaust were his hosting of a concert in memory of the victims and his intervention to resolve the crisis caused by placement of a convent at Auschwitz. These and other words and actions convince me that John Paul II did not wish to deny or downplay the horror of the Holocaust. Another way in which he built bridges with Judaism was through formal recognition of the State of Israel. In 1994 the Vatican established full diplomatic relations. Symbolic of this new relationship was the menorah-lighting at the Vatican to mark Israel's fifty years of statehood.

The event that stands out for me before his historic visit to the Holy Land was the pope's extraordinary visit to the Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986. (15) On that day, John Paul II went inside the synagogue and blessed the Jews. He singled out his visit to the Synagogue of Rome as the major event of the year 1986. He believed that this event would be remembered "for centuries and millennia in the history of this city and this church. I thank Divine Providence because the task was given to me." (16) It was during this visit that the pope made the following extraordinary statement on the strong bond that united the Catholic Church with the Jewish people, which he based on Nostra aerate:
   [T]he Church of Christ discovers her "bond" with Judaism by
   "searching into her own mystery" (NA 4). The Jewish religion is not
   "extrinsic" to us, but in a certain way is "intrinsic" to our own
   religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we
   do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved
   brothers and, in a certain way, it could he said that you are our
   elder brothers. (17)

Perhaps the most significant interfaith event of the John Paul II's papacy was his Jubilee Pilgrimage to Israel in March, 2000. One of the primary reasons for the pope's visit to the Holy Land was to walk where Jesus walked, to be in the places connected with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But, John Paul II, whose passion for peace was unsurpassed, had other major goals for the journey. He hoped to create greater harmony among the various Christian churches and to promote a dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims that is so desperately needed in the Holy Land. The pope often stated that such dialogue was a priority. On February 24, 2000, John Paul said in Egypt, "To do harm, to promote violence and conflict in the name of religion, is a terrible contradiction and a great offence against God." (18)

For Jews throughout the world, perhaps the most emotional moment of the visit occurred on Thursday, March 23, 2000, when the pope attended a special ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, and stated:
      I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of
   Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of human
   dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half a century
   has passed, but the memories remain.

   ... We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose,
   namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for
   the millions of innocent victims of Nazism. (19)

Jews around the world who watched this ceremony on TV recognized that they had just witnessed one of the most extraordinary events in all of Jewish history. Rabbi Ronald Kronish, the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, said of this event: "It was the Pope's indomitable spirit on that day--and throughout the trip--that moved Jewish people in Israel and all over the world to tears. It was his spiritual presence that moved Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak to react so positively to his speech." (20) The prime minister began his speech by welcoming the pope to Jerusalem in the name of all the citizens of Israel--Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews. Barak continued:
   You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic
   change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jewish people,
   initiated by the good Pope John the XXIII... And I think I can say,
   Your Holiness, that your coming here today, to the Tent of
   Remembrance at Yad Vashem, is a climax of this historic journey of
   healing. Here, right now, time itself has come to a standstill..,
   this very moment holds within it two thousand years of history.

For many Jews around the world the milestone of the pope's pilgrimage took place on Sunday, March 26, his last day in the Holy Land, when he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth for Jews, and inserted the following prayer into the cracks of the Wall:
   God of our fathers,
   you chose Abraham and his descendants
   to bring your Name to the Nations:
   we are deeply saddened by the behaviour 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. (22)

The prominent Israeli writer Amos Oz spoke of the pope's visit to Israel as "an epochal turning point, a revolution of great historical consequence." (23) Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel office, said, "'We deeply appreciate the Pope's historic contribution to Christian contrition for past attitudes towards the Jewish people that made the soil fertile for the Shoah, and for his profound commitment to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation." (24)

I have read many other accounts of people who speak of the great impact that the pope's Jubilee Pilgrimage to the Holy Land had on them. Perhaps the most influential is the statement from the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Rabbinical Assembly, representing 3,000 Reform and Conservative rabbis. In it they expressed deep gratitude and praise for the pope's contribution to Christian-Jewish relations. I would like to quote the last paragraph of their statement:
      Borrowing from the Pope's terminology, we call upon our rabbinic
   constituents to engage in intensified dialogue and fellowship with
   our Roman Catholic neighbors. At this historic moment of the first
   papal pilgrimage to the sovereign Jewish State. may the inspiring
   leadership of Pope John Paul II lead us toward greater
   reconciliation, friendship and partnership in effecting tikkun olam
   ["healing We world"]. (25)

John Paul II's contributions to the relationship between Jews and Christians will last far beyond his death. I agree with Weigel, who wrote in his biography that, because of the pontificate of John Paul II, "Catholics and Jews stand on the edge of a new theological conversation." (26)

Not only will John Paul II be remembered for his remarkable contribution to Jewish-Christian relations but also for his deep devotion to interfaith dialogue with members of other world religions. He saw interfaith dialogue as a way to lead us to realize that we are all God's children. He tirelessly fostered interfaith dialogue as a path to friendship and love between people of different traditions. In this spirit he convened one of the most remarkable interfaith events in history, the World Day of Prayer for Peace, held at Assisi in 1986. Leaders from all the world's major religions participated, and at the conclusion John Paul II spoke of a common goal "to seek the truth, to love and serve all individuals and peoples, and therefore to make peace among individuals and among nations." (27)

John Paul II loved Poland. He was very much in love with the Polish people. His greatness lies in his ability to extend this love to all Catholics and to all humanity. Indeed, many Catholics and members of other traditions believe that he was a holy person. As a person who loved God and humanity with all his heart and soul, John Paul II, the saint for Shalom, the great defender of the Jewish people, will be remembered by many Jews and by the Polish people as a saint of our time.

Harold Kasimow

Grinnell College

Grinnell, IA

* A Polish version of this essay is to be published in Znak (Krakow) during the Fall of 2013.

(1) John Paul II, "Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto," in Eugene J. Fisher and Leon Klenicki, comp., ed., and commentary, The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul H Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations: The Complete Texts, 1979-2005, A Crossroad Herder Book (New York: Crossroad, 2011), p. 235.

(2) Eric J. Greenberg, "Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Reaches New Heights: Gathering This Week of Rabbis, Vatican Leaders to Study Texts Seen as 'New Beginning,"' New York Jewish Week, vol. 213 (June 23, 2000); available at 54/1 ?aceountid= 14270.

(3) In a 1996 letter to Pope John Paul II, Pierre Sauvage stated: "I am not as familiar with the process of canonization as I should be, and as a Jew I personally do not believe in saints" (Pierre Sauvage, "Letter to Pope John Paul II," in Harry James Cargas, ed., Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican, Contributions to the Study of Religion 58, Christianity and the Holocaust--Core Issues [Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 1998], p. 100. For an excellent study of saints in the Jewish tradition, see Louis Jacobs, Holy Living: Saints and Saintliness in Judaism (North Vale, N J: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1990). See also Byron Sherwin's Workers of Wonders; in this work on the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Sherwin states: "The most 'successful' holy persons have been and remain today those who are believed to have the power to perform miracles" (Byron L. Sherwin, Workers of Wonders: A Model for Effective Religious Leadership from Scripture to Today [Lanham, MD, and Oxford, U.K.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004], p. 9).

(4) Quoted in James Martin, "Saint Pope John XXIII," America, April 28, 2011; available at http://

(5) Available at decl _19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.

(6) Cardinai Stanislaw Dziwisz in conversation with Gian Franco Svidercoschi, A Life with Karok My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope, tr. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2008 [orig.: Una Vita con Karol(Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007)]), p. 160.

(7) See Jerzy Kluger, The Pope and I." How a Lifelong Friendship Between a Polish Jew and John Paul 11 Advanced the Cause of Jewish-Christian Relations, tr. Matthew Sherry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), p. 89.

(8) Abrabam Joshua Heschel, "No Religion Is an Island," in Harold Kasimow and Byron L. Sherwin, eds., No Religion Is an Island: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 9.

(9) George Weigel, "John Paul II: A Biblical Pilgrim in the World," in David G. Dalin and Matthew Levering, eds., John Paul H and the Jewish People: A Jewish-Christian Dialogue, A Sheed & Ward Book (Lanham, MD, and Plymouth, U.K.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), p. 5.

(10) "An Historic Meeting: Pope Commits the Catholic Church to Its Ongoing Relationship and Dialogue with the Jewish Community," JTA [Jewish Telegraphic Agency], November 1, 1985; available at going-relationship-and-dialogue-with.

(11) Quoted in Fisher and Klenieki, Saint for Shalom, p. 202.

(12) Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Vatican Guidelines and Suggestions for lm. plementmg the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aerate (n. 4), December 1, 1974, preamble; available at doe 1974120 nostra-aetate en.html.

(13) Fisher and Klenicki, Saint for Shalom, p. 285.

(14) Ibid., p. 274.

(15) This was not John Paul ll's first visit to a synagogue. As a youth he went to a New Year Jewish service at the synagogue in Wadowice with his Jewish friend Jerzy Kluger. And, on February 28, 1969, when he was already a cardinal, he visited a number of synagogues in Krakow.

(16) Quoted in Fisher and Klenicki, Saint for Shalom, p. 1 I, from National Catholic News Service, December 31, 1986.

(17) John Paul II, "To Representatives of the Jewish Community of Rome" (April 13, 1986), in Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church (1963-1995), ed. Franceseo Gioia (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 1997 [orig.: II Dialogo Interreligioso (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994)]), p. 530.

(18) John Paul II, "Address upon Arrival in Egypt," in Lawrence Boa& and Kevin di Camillo, eds., John Paul H in the Holy Land." In His Own Words, with Christian and Jewish Perspectives by Yehezkel Landau and Michael McGarry, CSP, Studies in Judaism and Christianity, A Stimulus Book (New York and Mahwah, N J: Paulist Press, 2005), p. 56.

(19) Quoted in Fisher and Klenieki, Saint for Shalom, pp. 330-331

(20) Ronald Kronish, "The Historic Visit of the Pope to Israel in March, 2000: Memories and Hopes," April 1, 2004; see in March_ 2000 Memories_and_Hopes.2822.0.html?id=720&L=3 &searchText=ron+Kronish&searchFilter=%2A.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Quoted in Fisher and Klenicki, Saint for Shalom, p. 336; emphasis in original.

(23) Quoted in Garry Wills, "The Vatican Regrets," New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000, p. 19; available at

(24) "ADL Welcomes Pope John Paul ll's Visit and Words at Yad Vashem"; available at http://archive. EE3CD74-C46F-4657-B697-FE95B38B 162B,0B 1623CA-DSA4-465D-A369DF6E8679CD9E,frameless.htm.

(25) October 27, 2001; available at archive/ccar-and-rabbinical-assembly-recognize-bonds-between-jewish-and-/.

(26) George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul H (New York: Cliff Street Books [Harper Collins], 1999), p. 848.

(27) Quoted in Byron L. Sherwin and Harold Kasimow, eds., John Paul 11 and lnterreligious Dialogue, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), p. 42.
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Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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