Monday, April 18, 2011

Pope John Paul II: Catholic-Jewish Relations

The following is an essay by Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The two essential reference points for understanding Catholic-Jewish relations today is Vatican II’s Decree on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), paragraph 4 and the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Whereas the former placed the relationship between the people of the first covenant and the followers of Jesus in a context of renewed theological understanding, the latter has become a powerful witness to three key elements in this relationship: healing of memories, walking together as friends and working together for the sake of “healing the world” (tikkun olam).

One of the great moments of Pope John Paul’s pontificate was the visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem during his Jubilee Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Israel (2000). Surrounded by government and religious officials, the Pope chose to use this occasion to ask God’s forgiveness for the sinful words and actions committed by Catholics against the people who endured religiously inspired persecution for many centuries and the unprecedented atrocities of the Holocaust in the last century. The Pope wisely links repentance with a renewed commitment to walk together as members of the one family of God:

"God of our fathers, You chose Abraham
and his descendants to bring the name of
God to all the nations. We are profoundly
saddened by the behavior of those who, in
the course of history, have caused suffering
to these, your children, and for this we
ask Your forgiveness; we wish to commit
ourselves to a genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant (the
Jewish people)."

Friendship between the Catholics and Jews grew out of the pope’s personal experience growing up as Karol Wojtyla in Poland before the Second World War. Many of the future pope’s boyhood friends were Jewish, and one of them would later write a book on their relationship, which endured beyond the war and into Karol’s own career as a priest and bishop. Walking the path of friendship continued into the pontificate of John Paul, finding expression in his visits to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1979; the Synagogue of Rome in 1986 (the first pope to visit a Jewish house of prayer since St. Peter!); and the State of Israel in 2000—after having established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in 1993. The friendship between Catholics and Jews was for the late pontiff based in a deep theological conviction that Jews remain in a living covenant with God and Judaism is a unique religion for Christians because it is “internal” to their own self-understanding as followers of Jesus who was both the Son of God and a Jew.

Each time Pope John Paul met with representatives of the Jewish community, which was a frequent occurrence in Rome and during his many trips abroad, he would encourage his audience to work with Catholics to bring about a more peaceful world based on respect for basic human rights and human dignity. Only in this way can the children of Abraham fulfill the biblical mandate to “repair the breaches” in our society and bring true healing to the world (tikkun olam).

One of the pope’s titles is “Supreme Pontiff”—a title that could loosely be translated “great bridge-builder.” The beloved late pope shared the work of reconciliation that belongs to the Office of Peter not only with his fellow Christians, but also with those whom he called his “elder brothers and sisters” in the faith—who, as the Good Friday prayer of the New Mass reads, “were the first to hear the Word of God.”

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