Tribute to Pope John Paul II

By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen

I have to admit that, over the past few weeks, when I contemplated the impending demise of Pope John Paul II, I could not decide on whether or not it would be appropriate to refer to him on a Shabbat morning. Significantly, last Shabbat, when I invited members to reflect on their visit to Auschwitz, one of our members was so irate that I should have used a Shabbat for this purpose that he disclosed to a friend that he was going to report me to the Bet Din!

This is what a rabbi has to contend with. (The member, I mean, not the Bet Din!). So, if such an individual could not tolerate a reference to the beloved and bitterly lamented martyrs of our own people on a Shabbat, I have to be doubly careful when referring to a Pope!

The second reason for my indecision on this issue of whether to refer to him when his moment arrived was that, historically, the office of Pope was hardly a source of support, good will and favour towards the Jewish people. The 7th century Pope Gregory I established the Church’s official attitude toward the Jews, which was that we should be protected from violence and allowed to practise our faith, but that we must be restrained from exercising any semblance of authority over Christians, from enjoying equal status or from enjoying any privileges beyond those guaranteed by existing law. There were periods of greater tolerance, such as when the early 16th century Pope Julius III employed a Jewish physician, confirmed the rights of the Marranos of Ancona, condemned the blood libels and forced baptism. However, before long, all this changed with the Counter reforming Pope Paul IV, who, immediately on his accession, introduced a fanatical bull that effectively drove the Jews out of normal civic life, and initiated the long and dark period of ghetto existence for the Jews of Italy.

The repression of Italian Jewry and of Jews in countries under the dominion of Catholic rulers, continued unabated for another three centuries. Among other restrictions, this involved forced baptism and the prohibition of Jews engaging in money lending, bringing the community to the edge of ruin.

Pope Pius XI (1922-39) radically departed from Church tradition, and, in the face of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the growth of anti-Semitism in Italy, he courageously declared those immortal words, “spiritually we are all Semites.” In sharp contrast, the silence of his successor, Pope Pius XII (1939-58), to speak out against the Nazis and the treatment of the Jews of Europe was deafening.

Against that jet black backcloth of Jewish-Papal relations, John Paul II stands out as a beacon of light, a man of peace, of warmth and love, of tolerance, of light, of courage, of wisdom, of profound and practical spirituality, a veritable chasid ummot ha-olam, “a truly righteous gentile,” for whom, according to the Talmud, “a share in the World to Come” is guaranteed.

He extended his hand to Jewry; he visited Israel and prayed by the Kotel, he formally craved forgiveness for the Church’s oppression of our people and its historical acts of omission and commission, and he sought to build bridges wherever possible.

But his true nobility of character shines through in the personal testimonies that have been publicised. One was published in the press this week, and related by a Holocaust survivor, Idit Tzirer. Aged 13 at the time, she fled her concentration camp at the arrival of the Russian soldiers. Emaciated and suffering from tuberculosis, she sat for two days in the public square of a small Polish town near Cracow, with no food or water, and, being a Jewish child, no one took any notice of her. Alone and shivering, she was approached by the then 24 year old seminary student, Karol Wojtyla, who brought her some tea and two pieces of bread with cheese. He sat with her and put his cloak around her freezing body. When she told him that she was making for Cracow but could not walk on her swollen feet, he lifted her onto his back and carried her four kilometres through the snow. I believe that that one act of true chesed is enough to win for someone their olam ha-ba.

I have to thank Mr Clive Leigh for bringing to my notice another testimony, published in Rabbi Frand on the Parashah (ArtScroll, Mesorah Publications, 2001), p. 33, and well worthy of being quoted in full - but as this work is copyright, I am afraid I cannot reproduce the story here.

In recognition of his determination to promote Jewish-Catholic relations, in 2003 the Pope was presented with the Simon Wiesenthal Center's highest honour, its Humanitarian Award. His lifetime efforts in that direction may be gauged by the fact that as far back as 1963 he was one of the major supporters of Nostra Aetate, the historic Vatican document which rejected the collective responsibility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion. In 1986 he was the first Pope ever to visit a synagogue. He was the first to recognize the State of Israel, the first to issue a document that sought forgiveness for members of the Church for wrongdoing committed against the Jewish people throughout history and to apologize for Catholics who failed to help Jews during the Nazi period. He was the first to visit a concentration camp and to institute an official observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Vatican.

In the two thousand year history of the papacy, no Christian leader, and certainly no Pope has ever evinced such an interest in, and gave such practical expression to, seeking reconciliation with the Jewish people.

We bid farewell to a great religious leader, a truly righteous man, and a true friend of the Jewish people. May he rest in peace