Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Pope John Paul II’s papacy has radically changed church’s relations with J

c. 1998 Religion News Service ROME _ In his two decades as pope, John Paul II has radically changed the scope and tenor of relations between Roman Catholics and Jews. As pope, the Polish-born John Paul has presided over and encouraged an official Catholic opening to Jews, their sensitivities and their causes unprecedented in 2,000 […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

ROME _ In his two decades as pope, John Paul II has radically changed the scope and tenor of relations between Roman Catholics and Jews.

As pope, the Polish-born John Paul has presided over and encouraged an official Catholic opening to Jews, their sensitivities and their causes unprecedented in 2,000 years of church history _ a”mainstreaming”of Catholic-Jewish relations which in some places, such as the United States, has become so routine it is taken for granted.”John Paul has placed those relationships squarely in the mainstream

of Catholic teaching, preaching, liturgy; indeed all forms of church life,”said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of Interreligious Relations of the

American Jewish Committee and a columnist for RNS.”In the past, Catholic-Jewish relations were often the preserve of those Catholic leaders, including bishops, who, for a variety of reasons, were personally committed to improving the scene,”said Rudin, who has met with the pope more than half a dozen times.”Despite the Second Vatican Council and `Nostra Aetate,’ (the council’s statement on relations with the Jews) there was no universal, global mandate to press forward,”he said.”That has changed with John Paul II’s vigorous leadership in this area.” The process has not been without serious problems and pitfalls.

This month’s beatification of Croatia’s World War II-era Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, accused by critics of collaborating with the fascists, is one example.

Another is a controversial Vatican document on the Shoah released in March. The document represented an act of repentance for individual Catholic failings during the Holocaust. But it disappointed many Jews for, among other things, absolving the church itself from any responsibility and defending wartime Pope Pius XII against criticism of his silence in the face of the Holocaust.

The pope’s decision to honor former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, despite evidence Waldheim lied about a Nazi past, also outraged Jews, as did a bitter conflict in the late 1980s and early ’90s over the establishment of a Carmelite convent in a building abutting Auschwitz.

The status of Jerusalem, which the Vatican wants to see put under international mandate, also continues to create problems.

Nonetheless, the positive strides have been great, given that official sanction to full-scale Catholic-Jewish dialogue only dates back to the 1960s.

It was the Second Vatican Council and its”Nostra Aetate”declaration, issued in 1965, that opened the door to Roman Catholic-Jewish dialogue. “Nostra Aetate”repudiated the notion that the”perfidious”Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and called for”mutual respect and understanding”between Catholics and Jews.

After becoming pope in 1978, John Paul made bettering relations with the Jewish world a cornerstone of his policy and condemnation of anti-Semitism a constant thread running through his public statements.

One reason was that he himself lived through the horrors of the Nazi occupation of his native Poland and saw firsthand both the effects of the Holocaust and the effects of postwar communist anti-Semitism.

Time and again during his papacy, John Paul has spoken out strongly against anti-Semitism, and he has taken a number of significant, highly publicized, actions to demonstrate his regard for the Jewish world.

They include:

_ His visit to Auschwitz in 1979, on his first trip back to Poland after his election to the papacy.

_ His visit to the main synagogue in Rome in 1986, at which he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi and referred to Jews as Christianity’s”older brothers”.

_ Numerous meetings with Jewish communities in various countries and delegations at the Vatican.

_ His sponsorship of events such as a concert at the Vatican in 1994 to commemorate the Holocaust, a menorah-lighting ceremony at the Vatican at Hanukkah 1997 attended by senior Vatican and Jewish officials, and a symposium at the Vatican in 1997 to discuss Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

_ The establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in late 1993.

Given nearly two millenia of history in which various of his papal forebears and other church officials closed Jews into ghettos, expelled them from cities, forced them to wear special clothing or badges, subjected them to the Inquisition, barred them from certain trades and otherwise imposed persecution and discrimination, they are milestones in a process most observers hope is permanent and irrevocable.

It remains clear, however, that the implementation of the new, official church teachings on Jewish issues at the grassroots level remains a key challenge. The new teachings are not always heeded, transmitted or acknowledged _ and indeed are sometimes even rejected.

Polish Roman Catholic extremists who claim to be”defending the cross”, for example, have defied church leaders in erecting hundreds of crosses outside the walls of Auschwitz since July, and have injected a heavy dose of anti-Semitism in their public statements.

Maintaining the momentum established by John Paul and ensuring the success of the trickle-down process will be a key priority in Catholic-Jewish relations as the church heads into its third millennium.

Future popes will not have John Paul’s personal commitment as a witness to the Holocaust and communism to keeping bettering Jewish relations at the forefront of Vatican policy.

These issues may be become marginalized, and momentum may slow. Future popes may even minimalize John Paul’s efforts.

But, said Rabbi Rudin, many of John Paul’s teachings have been written into church doctrine, and it is unlikely that the process of expanding Catholic-Jewish dialogue will be reversed.”Because of the pope’s personal background and because of the length of his reign,”Rudin said,”history will record that John Paul II’s achievements are epoch-making; achievements that permanently changed the way Catholics and Jews relate to one another. That is his greatest gift to future generations.”

DEA END GRUBER