Jews also cheer for John XXIII and John Paul II

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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As millions of Roman Catholics rejoice in the news that two popes are being fast-tracked to sainthood, many Jews are smiling with them.

Pope Francis has approved John XXIII and John Paul II for the church’s supreme honor in a process that quick-stepped protocol. Jewswill remember both of these men for taking steps that were a millennium in the making.

For centuries, Catholic Church-inspired anti-Semitism spawned the demonizing and murder of countless Jews.

Across Europe and wherever the church’s teachings reached, the faithful were taught that Jews had no place among decent human beings, that the Jewish people’s covenant with the Almighty was rendered null and void by Christianity and that Jews were cursed to eternal tribulation for having crucified Jesus.

Because Europeans had been taught these tropes for generations, Adolph Hitler (no religious devotee himself) and the Nazis could be confident of support across the continent when they unleashed their Final Solution of the “Jewish question” — the genocide of a people.

It took two decades after the liberation of Auschwitz, but the Catholic Church did an about-face regarding anti-Jewish teachings with the release of Nostra Aetate, or In Our Age, a 1965 declaration of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John XXIII, who launched Vatican II, shepherded it along, although Nostra Aetate wasn’t released until after his death. No one will ever know how many Jewish lives around the world he made secure, and how many friendships between Catholics and Jews he empowered.

As Father Angelo Joseph Roncalli, the papal representative in Istanbul during World War II, he provided bogus papers to help Jewish refugees flee the Nazis and escape to Palestine.

He personally prodded the Catholic queen of Bulgaria to persuade her husband to protect the Jews of that nation. Roncalli is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews.

Perhaps because of what he saw during the Holocaust, John XXIII never lost an opportunity to modify church practices that nurtured anti-Semitism.

He removed the term perfidious Jews from the Good Friday prayer.

The pontiff decried theological anti-Semitism: “Across the centuries, our brother Abel was slain in blood which we drew ...” he once prayed. “Forgive us, Lord, for the curse we falsely attributed to their name as Jews.”

John warmly received countless Jewish delegations. During one such audience, he introduced himself with a Biblical verse that alluded to his baptismal name and underscored the relationship between Christians and Jews: “I am Joseph your brother.”

If John XXIII took hugely important steps in changing attitudes and teachings about Jews, John Paul II boldly walked those steps into the public arena. He literally went where no pope had gone before.

As a young man in Poland under Hitler, Karol Wojtyla was witness to hell on Earth. He personally rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a rail station, feeding and caring for her.

During the Middle Ages, Jews in Rome’s Great Synagogue were forced to listen to harangues against their faith delivered by apostate Jews. John Paul II delivered a different message when he attended that synagogue, the first pope to visit a Jewish house of worship, embracing Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and calling Jews the “elder brothers” of Christians.

He visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall, praying there for forgiveness for the way Christians had mistreated Jews for almost 2,000 years.

He walked in pilgrimage to the blood-drenched killing grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He organized a papal concert in memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He established full diplomatic relations with Israel, accepting a revivified Jewish nation.

Jews do not pray to saints; we don’t have any. We do look up to the righteous and saintly.

Jews will join with their Catholic friends in praying that people of all faiths will find inspiration in these two great men.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the center’s director for interfaith affairs.

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