The Vatican, the Jews and Israel

A look back at the two popes who changed Catholic-Jewish relations forever.

catholic_jewish_relations_3The Vatican announced on September 30, 2013 that deceased Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized as saints at a Vatican ceremony, which will take place on April 27, 2014.  By happenstance, these two popes did more than any others to foster close ties with the Jews and the Jewish State. Pope John XXIII was pontiff from 1958-1963, and the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, led the Catholic Church from 1978-2005.  Their heroic actions cleared the way for ever warmer relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish State.

It was Pope John Paul II’s (born Karol Jozef Wojtyla) lifelong Jewish friend and schoolmate from his Polish hometown of Wadowice, Jerzy Kluger, who influenced him to make the historic visit to the great Rome Synagogue on April 13, 1986.  There, in a memorable expression of respect for Judaism, he intoned, “You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”  His visit is acknowledged as the first by a pope since the early history of the Roman Catholic Church.  Pope John Paul II prayed together with the Chief Rabbi of Rome at the time, Elio Toaff, in an attempt to show solidarity with Jews and Judaism.

Earlier in 1979, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where many of his compatriots (mostly Polish Jews) perished during the Nazi occupation during World War II. In 1998 he issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which outlined his thinking on the Holocaust.

On December 30, 1993, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.  A Vatican Nunciature in Jerusalem, Israel, and an Israeli embassy in Rome were established in January 1994.  For Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church this meant reconciliation with the Jewish people, and it was viewed by the Israeli government as normalization.  Prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Vatican’s interests were handled by the Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Custodian of the Holy Land.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel where he publicly apologized for the persecution of the Jews over the centuries by the Catholics, including the Holocaust (he, as Karol Wojtyla, saved a 13-old Jewish girl during the war and helped many other Jews). He also left a note in the Western Wall pleading for forgiveness.

In order to understand how far the Catholic Church was moved by both popes it is important to look at the actions of another pope, Pius X, who had a private meeting with Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism and the spiritual founder of the Jewish State of Israel, on January 25, 1904.

Following the first Zionist Congress in 1897, which took place in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl sought out Pope Pius X in the hopes of gaining his sympathetic understanding of the Zionist cause.  The meeting came in the wake of devastating pogroms against Jews of Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European lands, and rabid anti-Semitism in Western Europe.  At issue was the return of these persecuted Jews to their ancestral home.  Pope Pius X’s reaction was: “We are unable to favor the movement [Zionism].  We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it.  The ground of Jerusalem has been sanctified by the life of Christ.  As head of the Church, I cannot answer you otherwise.  The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish People.”

The Church’s hostile stance continued despite the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948.  The Osservatore Romano, the official organ of the Vatican proclaimed at that time, “Modern Israel is not the authentic heir of biblical Israel, but constitutes a lay state. This is why the holy land and its sacred places belong to Christianity, the veritable Israel.”

In contrast are the words of Pope John Paul II who said in a 1994 interview with Tad Szulc published in Parade magazine: “It must be understood that Jews, who for two thousand years were dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors.  This is their right.  And this right is recognized even by those who look upon the nation of Israel with an unsympathetic eye.  This right was also recognized from the outset by the Holy See, and the act of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel is simply an international affirmation of this relationship.”

Italian-born Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later to become Pope John XXIII, will forever be remembered as the Pope that truly changed Catholic-Jewish relations.  The Second Vatican Council and the declaration, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), are the most critical landmarks in this relationship. During WWII, Msgr. Roncalli, then the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey, saved Jews fleeing the Nazis by providing them with baptismal certificates.  He worked with the delegation of the Jewish Agency of Palestine in Istanbul in the undercover delivery of immigration certificates to Palestine for Jewish refugees in Europe.  Additionally, he urged Pope Pius XII to receive then Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, who wished to plead personally for the rescue of Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  Pope Pius XII flatly refused to see him.

Immediately upon becoming Pope John XXIII, on October 28, 1958, he announced his intention of calling for an Ecumenical Council (held on January 20, 1959).  On the ‘Declaration on Jews’ dealing with the alleged collective guilt of the Jews in the death of Jesus, 1821 delegates rejected the charge of Jewish collective guilt, while 188 (mostly Arab-Christians) approved.  And the delegates, by a vote of 1821 to 245, determined that ‘Jews must not be represented as accursed or rejected by God.’ Another vote, regarding “rejecting persecution against the Jewish people,” passed 1905 to 199.

Pope John XXIII ordered the Church to delete the expression “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday prayers.

These positive changes in the Catholic Church towards the Jewish people were influenced by facts.  The Holocaust in Christian Europe left no doubt that the Church’s anti-Judaism (as Cardinal Cassidy once termed it in response to a question posed by this writer as to whether the pogrom in Kielce, Poland on July 4, 1946, soon after the Holocaust was anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism) had transformed into murderous anti-Semitism, and that the Church’s teachings must change.  The re-establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, forced the Church to recognize the reality of Jewish revival.  Finally, the stunning Six-Day War Israeli victory, against all odds, convinced the Church that God, after all, is protecting his covenanted people.

The two-covenant theology proposed by the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, which argued that Jews are already with the Father (God), and need no intercession of Jesus, was gradually absorbed into Christian thinking.  It is indeed reflected in the words of the Nostra Aetate which declares: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes.” Nor does God abrogate his covenant with His people …

Reverend Dr. Bill Harter, a Presbyterian Church USA pastor, commented to this writer that he hopes that mainline Protestant churches will reach the same understanding the Catholic Church has reached in their relationship with Jews and Israel.

Nostra Aetate and subsequent changes in Catholic teaching regarding Jews have had positive effects in both North America, and the West -- due in large measure to the two great and truly humanitarian popes, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

Both Israel and Jewish communities worldwide should enthusiastically welcome the canonization and sainthood of these two great Catholic leaders.

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