Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pope John Paul II at Judaism’s holiest site

By Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg

He stood alone in the shadow of the western retaining wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Then, God’s representative on Earth to nearly a billion Catholics slipped a sheet of paper into a crack in the holiest site in Judaism. And prayed.

On March 26, 2000, this unprecedented image was transmitted globally via Internet, tv and in countless newspaper photographs. The image will forever symbolize Pope John Paul historic effort to build a new relationship of respect, mutual understanding and friendship with the Jewish people after nearly 2,000 years of damage and destruction.

I was an eyewitness to this moving event. As the religion reporter for a New York City newspaper, I had been assigned to cover the first official visit by a pope to the State of Israel. Through high level connections, I obtained an invitation to the ceremony at the Western Wall. Security was extraordinarily tight. The streets leading to the Temple Mount were restricted to all but a handful of Israeli and Vatican officials. Military helicopters circled overhead.

Yet the scene was eerily quiet as the stooped 79-year-old pontiff tucked his note into the ancient stones. He was following a 300-year old Jewish tradition of slipping prayers for God into the giant golden-hued stones. The wall is the last remaining physical structure linked to the sacred site of King Solomon’s First Temple; the Second Temple - which the Maccabees liberated in 165 BCE; and Herod the Great’s magnificently renovated Temple, where Jesus walked. The tradition of placing prayers in the wall stems from the Jewish belief that the Divine Presence has never moved from this ancient, much destroyed site.

Pope John Paul’s text - a plea to God to forgive those who have persecuted the Jewish people throughout history – in essence repeated the profound words he uttered weeks earlier at his famous Mass of apology in Rome.

His prayer note said:

God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour 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.
Jerusalem 26, March 2000

Signed: John Paul II

Interestingly, John Paul had insisted his visit was a personal spiritual pilgrimage tracing Jesus’ life, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem. Yet he knew the political significance it held for Israelis, Palestinians, non-Catholic Christians, Jews around the world and Muslims.

Tens of millions of Christian TV viewers who followed the Pope’s movements saw the Israeli police pull off one of the most hand-wringing security projects in their history. Israelis also for the first time began learning something about Christians and their beliefs, an important step toward better relations. Many learned that this Pope had done more than any in history to repair the torturous attitude of Christians toward Jews. He had declared anti-Semitism a sin, talked about God’s enduring Covenant with the Jewish people and established diplomatic relations with Israel. On another level, he delivered powerful words about the evils of the Holocaust, 2,000 years of persecution by Christians against Jews, and his determination to forge a new positive relationship with the Jewish people, whom he referred to as beloved brothers.

The pope’swords and image raised important questions about the future of Jewish-Catholic relations. Would the stirring images of this frail, charismatic holy man at the Western Wall and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial be sufficient to bring reconciliation after 2,000 torturous years of Jewish-Christian relations?

More than a decade later, we have answers. Pope Benedict XVI followed in John Paul’s footsteps with successful visit to Israel in 2009. Today, Pope Francis is discussing his own plan to visit Israel. So Israel is now a required destination for any pope.

However more effort is needed to bring John Paul’s message to the pews and Catholic schools - particularly to Catholics in South America, Africa and Asia. The local churches and bishops conferences face the challenge to provide educational programs on the meaning of the State of Israel and Judaism and the Holocaust an all levels. Then the legacy of John Paul II will live on, to the benefit of all mankind.

--- Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and a co-editor of “The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”

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