Just heard about the Pope's death. Here's something I was working on, an unfortunately had to change from present to past tense while writing.
The Pope: A Rabbi’s Tribute
Usually, Rabbis don’t give eulogies for Popes. In fact, historically, Catholic-Jewish relations have been quite difficult, to say the least. In medieval and early modern history, the Catholic Church was the driving force in European anti-Semitism. Jews were viewed as the killers of Jesus, unworthy of rights and even basic protections. Papal declarations required that Jews wear unusual identifying clothes (like the infamous yellow star), outlawed the Talmud, and insisted Jews attend conversionary sermons. Church sponsored crusades, blood libels and inquisitions brought violence and fear to all European Jewish communities. And while there are some notable exceptions, most Popes were very much a part of this anti-Semitic milieu. In 1555, Pope Paul IV wrote: "It appears utterly absurd and impermissible that the Jews, whom God has condemned to eternal slavery for their guilt, should enjoy our Christian love."
These anti-Semitic attitudes continued to persist in the Catholic Church well into the 20th century. David Kertzer, a professor at Brown University and the author of The Popes Against the Jews, marshals compelling evidence that the Vatican continued to promote anti-Semitism well into the early 1900’s. One example is the blood libel, the odious claim that Jews conducted a ritual murder of a Christian child in preparation for the holiday of Passover. When Pope Leo XIII was asked in 1900 to repudiate this canard, he instead appointed commission that concluded that "ritual murder is a historical certainty ... and such murder furthermore was charged and punished many times”. Until recent years, Catholic-Jewish relations were filled with anger and mistrust.
Since the Vatican’s publication of Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”) on October 28th, 1965, there has been a dramatic change in Catholic-Jewish relations. Nostra Aetate condemned, on theological grounds, any form of Catholic anti-Semitism. Following this declaration, a friendly spirit of Catholic-Jewish dialogue slowly developed, for which quite a few people can take credit. But there is no question that the most important figure in the rapprochement of the last forty years was the late Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.
Despite being a fairly conservative Pope, John Paul II worked tirelessly to change the Vatican’s attitude towards the Jews. He was the youngest bishop at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which adopted Nostra Aetate. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue. He was the first Pope to visit Auschwitz. Under his tenure, the Vatican finally recognized the State of Israel, and in 2000 he made a historic visit to Israel. Without question, Pope John Paul II has transformed the face of Catholic-Jewish relations. No wonder that on January 18th of this year 160 Rabbis visited the Vatican to bless the Pope.
While the career of John Paul II is quite impressive, what touches me even more is the humanity of Karol Wojtyla. A PBS documentary, Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, explores Wojtyla’s personal relationships as a young man in Wadowice, Poland, during a virulently anti-Semitic era. Notably, he didn’t show any trace of anti-Semitism. He cultivated Jewish friendships. He even played goalie for a primarily Jewish soccer team, and one of his best friends was a Jew, Jerzy Kluger.
Although he never was an active part of the anti-German resistance, Wojtyla did show compassion and bravery. Sister Zofia Zarnecka, a fellow university student, told PBS how Wojtyla protected a Jewish student, Anka Weber. "He often escorted her down the street and fended off the bigots who called themselves, 'All-Poland Youth.'". Edith Schiere, another Jewish Wadowician who now lives in Israel, told PBS that during the war, she managed to escape Auschwitz and, wandering in her weakened condition, met Karol Wojtyla. He carried her on his back to the train station and got her some food. In the interview, she said she felt terrible that she never had the chance to thank him.
This tribute is my way of thanking John Paul II, for Edith Schiere and the rest of the Jewish people. John Paul II was a “mensch”, an exceptional human being. Because of his genuine concern and compassion, John Paul II succeeded in single-handedly changing Catholic-Jewish relations. He will leave behind a legacy of peace and understanding.
May his memory be a blessing for all of humanity.