A Jewish appreciation of historic John XXIII, John Paul II canonizations

By Rabbi Yehiel Poupko | Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Sunday, May 18, 2014

These two popes are deeply admired and respected in the Jewish community worldwide. A fundamental Jewish principal is Hakarat Hatov, recognition of good. It was due to John XXIII’s leadership and remarkable personality that Nostra Aetate came to pass at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. This declaration stated that Jewish people then, throughout history, and now, are not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. It declared anti-Semitism to be a sin against the church.

In subsequent documents that continued the work of the Second Vatican Council, the church called upon the Catholic faithful to seek true friendship and dialogue with the Jewish people and to understand Jews and Judaism as we understand ourselves; it also acknowledged the ongoing efficacy of God’s promises to the Jewish people made in the Torah. This is one of the greatest theological changes in the whole history of Christianity. John XXIII is a name and a man that Jewish history will not soon forget.

John Paul II, born into this world as Karol Józef Wojtyła, was a Polish Catholic. He came of age between World War I and World War II. He was a child of the first independent Poland since it was dismembered in 1795 by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up in Wadowice, home to a vibrant Jewish community. He went to school with Polish Jews. He knew the Holocaust.

John Paul II had an innate sense of affection and respect for the Jewish people. When he returned to Poland, not too many months after his election to the papacy, he visited Auschwitz. In front of the Hebrew Memorial Plaque, dedicated to the nearly 1.5 million Jews murdered in Auschwitz, he stopped, he knelt and he acknowledged the particular horror of the Holocaust and its murder of 6 million Jews.

It is easy to share someone’s sorrow and pain. A real sign of friendship is to share their joys. John Paul II traveled to Israel in the year 2000. Landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, he met Israel’s president and prime minister, as well as Israel’s chief rabbis. He rode through the streets of Jerusalem, welcomed by throngs of Jews. He went to the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, where he visited the Western Wall — the place to which Jewish prayer and yearning have been directed since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE; the wall that represents the eternal attachment of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and Israel; the place that marks the site of Israel’s redemption and celebrates the ineffable experience of moving from Auschwitz to Jerusalem in but a few years.

In a note placed in the wall he prayed: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations; We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

Pope John Paul II’s prayer at the Western Wall was remarkable, for it proclaims to Christendom that:

1) The children of Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people, continue to have a sacred religious purpose to bring the name of the One God to the nations.

2) Anti-Semitism was an offense against God, because it has caused “these children of Yours to suffer.”

3) Christians still need forgiveness for the suffering that has been brought to the Jewish people.

John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized in the presence of two other popes, Benedict XVI and Francis. On May 28, 2006, Benedict made a pilgrimage to Birkenau, the mass killing center of the Death Camp Auschwitz. Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI paused in front of the Hebrew inscription to the Jews murdered in Birkenau. He spoke these words:

“There is one (inscription) in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: ‘We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter’ were fulfilled in a terrifying way… Those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die… By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.”

In this statement Pope Benedict XVI declared that the genocide of the Jewish people was unique. It was a deicide. It was an attempt by the German Nazis to murder not just the Jewish people, but God himself. As Benedict said, “Those vicious criminals…wanted to kill God who called Abraham,” the father of the Jewish people, and God “who spoke on Sinai” to the Jewish people. He affirmed that God dwells in Israel’s midst, as it is written in Scripture, “And they shall know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might dwell in their midst… (Ex 29:46). To annihilate Israel is to murder God who is in their midst and abides with them.” Thus, we the Jewish people celebrate with Catholics worldwide the canonization of two popes, our friends, in the presence of two popes, our friends as well.