Skip navigation

Thanks to him, we're brothers

The document Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965, some 13 years before Karol Wojtyla became Pope, lays down important new principles for the Church's attitude to Jews. It recognized the unique role of the Jewish people in the eyes of God, affirmed the Jewishness of Jesus and called all Catholics to fight anti-Semitism.

It was 20 years after Nostra Aetate before the Vatican was ready to issue more specific guidelines as to how to present Judaism to Catholics. What the Church had decreed on paper, however, Pope John Paul II translated into action. With a poet's sense of the symbolic act, the politician's skillful use of the media and a Pole's sensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, he turned an abstract document into a concrete program.

John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit a synagogue, but the real breakthrough came in 2000 when he travelled to Israel. He openly recognized Jewish pain on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial and prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy place. He acknowledged Jewish sovereignty when he paid an official visit to the president of the State of Israel.

Symbolic acts came with substantive declarations. When the Pope visited the Rome synagogue, he stated: "With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved bothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers." This was an implied repudiation of the traditional Christian doctrine that the old covenant with Israel had been superseded by the new covenant with the Church.

Meeting Israel's religious leaders, the Pope said: "We listen respectfully to one another, seek to discern all that is good and holy in each others' teachings, and co-operate in supporting everything that favours mutual understanding and peace." This was a clear invitation to a relationship between equals.

Though he would not apologize on behalf of the Church for its historic hostility to Jews and Judaism, he acknowledged in sadness that some of its exponents behaved badly. Many Jewish leaders saw this (and the Vatican's earlier recognition of Israel) as signs of a fundamental shift. Last December, in an audience with the Pope, the director of the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S., Abraham Foxman, who as a child was hidden from the Nazis by a Polish Catholic woman, praised the Pope's continued denunciation of anti-Semitism, his showing solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust and affirming the covenant that God made with the Jewish people.

Mr. Foxman spoke for most Jews, but not all. The canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish-born convert to Catholicism who died in Auschwitz, has offended many, for she died not as a Christian martyr but because the Nazis saw her as a Jew. The implication that Christians were as much victims of nazism as Jews caused many of us discomfort -- as did the beatification of Pope Pius XII, whose record during the Nazi period toward the Jews has been criticized by many historians.

Though the critics may have a case, others have stressed John Paul II's achievements. They've accepted the fact that, for all his power and influence, he was in the hands of his Curia, which did not necessarily share his views, and the head of a Church with a theological tradition he would not repudiate. At best, he could only reformulate accepted doctrines. No pope can be expected to say that Catholicism has erred or that his predecessors were wrong.

He was also the head of a state with political responsibilities to serve Vatican interests, not upset Palestinians and not jeopardize the precarious situation of Christians in Muslim countries. Jews who appreciate these limitations also appreciate the achievements of Pope John Paul II. And those who hail from Poland will add our admiration for his profound influence on the changes there, away from visceral anti-Semitism toward a genuine effort to seek reconciliation with the Jewish people.

At the funeral for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, president Bill Clinton bid farewell with the words, "Shalom, friend." Sharing the world's grief for the passing of Pope John Paul II, Jews cannot say, "Farewell, Father," but they can and should say, "Shalom, brother."

Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus of Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple,

and former executive director

of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, is author of Six Lives -- A Memoir.

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top