Following my treatment of the World Council of Churches and of the Lausanne Movement, this post is the third in a series on the Roman Catholic Church. We continue here to examine the papacy of John Paul II who strove to unpack and move forward the extraordinary advances made in the Vatican II encyclical, Nostra Aetate. These numbered points coincide with categories Eugene Fisher devised to examine the advances and contributions made by Pope John Paul II to Catholic-Jewish relations. (And again, the photograph is of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel advising Cardinal Beas, with whom he met for four years, advising on the advances to be made in Nostra Aetate).
5. Condemnations of Anti-Semitism and Remembrances of the Shoah. Fisher characterizes John Paul II’s response to antisemitism as a “deep abhorrence,” which he frequently communicated in his travels, especially in Europe. In his homily at Otranto, which Fisher terms, “controversial,” the Pope for the first time linked the Holocaust and State of Israel, saying: “The Jewish people, after tragic experiences connected with the extermination of so many sons and daughters, driven by the desire for security, set up the modern State of Israel” (October 5, 1980). Up to this point, the Vatican had traditionally avoided reference to the State of Israel, but here the Pope was sympathetically mentioning the founding of the State, a colossal leap of progress, and controversial because it was so at variance with the political climate of the day and with prior policies of the Church.
In Australia, (November 26, 1986), John Paul said “no theological justification could ever be found for acts of discrimination or persecution against Jews. In fact, such acts must be held to be sinful.” In sharpest contrast to those prepared to glibly identify theological reasons for such, the Pope spoke of “the mystery of the suffering of Israel’s children,” summoning Christians to develop in with Jews ‘common educational programs . . . which will teach future generations about the Holocaust so that never again will such a horror be possible. Never again!’ (Miami, September 11, 1987). It is a measure of the Pope’s passion for rapprochement with the Jewish community that be borrows the rhetoric of Jewish contemplation of the Shoah (“never again”) in calling and pledging the Church to change and action.
He demonstrates this strong affinity when speaking at his childhood home in Wadowice, when he says, “In the school of Wadowice there were Jewish believers who are no longer with us. There is no longer a synagogue near the school. Let us remember that we are near Auschwitz” (Catholic News Service, August 15, 1991). For the Pope to refer to Jews as “Jewish believers” is extraordinary, as it occurs in an ecclesial context which for centuries has disparaged the Jews and their religion.
His Holiness reiterated this theme in comments on August 16, 1991 in a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community in Wadowice, saying, “My thoughts go with deep respect to the great believers who even in those days of devastation—yom shoah in the words of Zephaniah (cf. 1:15]. . . . We are here now to adore the God of Israel, who this time, too, has stretched out his protecting hand over a blessed remnant of his people. How often his mysterious ransom has been repeated in your history!”
6. The Land and State of Israel. We saw earlier how, at Otranto, the Pope provoked controversy by speaking positively of the modern State of Israel, sympathetically linking its founding with Shoah. But he did more than just speak. On December 20, 1993, his representative signed the Fundamental Agreement which would lead to normalized relations. The first Ambassador of the Holy See was established in Israel as of August 16, 1994. In the midst of a wider church world so often uncommittal about the Jewish state, this committed action stands out like a beacon in the darkness.
7. Controversies and Dialogue. John Paul II’s papacy was characterized by extensive controversy concerning both the Holocaust and Israel. Triggering incidents included his meetings with Yassir Arafat, with Kurt Waldheim, the beatification of Edith Stein, and the Carmelite convent in the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound. Fisher wisely stresses that the pope of necessity acts within a Catholic context, and that his actions in each of these areas were understood differently by Catholics than they were by Jews. He pleads for members of both communities to learn to listen attentively and respectfully to members of the other reporting their interpretations of such events. He suggests that the time is or should be long past for simply telling people our own version of the truth without bothering to hear their version.
Yet more to come next time!