Pope John Paul II and the Jews: “You are our elder brothers.”

The most peripatetic of all pontiffs, the waving white-cassocked figure of Pope John Paul II and his popemobile – bulletproofed since the 1981 attempt on his life – became a legendary figure as he crisscrossed the world’s map for more than 20 years.
One of the longest and most moving of his trips was his weeklong millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land, not only as a Christian but as a Pole, who grew up with Jews and mourned Jewish friends, neighbors and former playmates, who perished in the Nazi Holocaust. His tearful embrace with a Shoah survivor at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem was spontaneous and heartfelt.
A certain disappointment with the papal visitor’s failure to apologize for the record of his predecessor Pius II in the Nazi era faded quickly when he stood at the Western Wall and said: “Personally, I have always wanted to be counted among those who work, on both sides, to overcome old prejudices, and to secure ever wider and fuller recognition of the spiritual patrimony shared by Jews and Christians. I repeat what I said on the occasion of my visit to the Jewish Community in Rome, that we Christians recognize that the Jewish religious heritage is intrinsic to our own faith: “You are our elder brothers.”
That said, he inserted the written text into a crevice of the Wall.
The statement was perfectly consistent with his lifelong work, from before the time when Karol Wojtyla as a young priest took part in drafting the groundbreaking 1965 Vatican II document that ended centuries of Christian anathema of the Jews. The document condemned “hatred and persecutions of the Jews,” affirmed the validity of Judaism as a religious way of life with which Catholics must establish relations of “mutual knowledge and respect” and repudiated the idea of “the Jewish people as one rejected, cursed, or guilty of deicide…”
Never one for pompous or pious speeches, the pontiff took often revolutionary steps to make that edict come true.
In 1993, the Vatican extended long-overdue recognition to the State of Israel and in 1994, they exchanged ambassadors. He was the first pope since the founding of the Catholic Church to visit a synagogue when he paid his respects at the Great Synagogue of Rome in the ancient Jewish Ghetto. There, he said: “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain way is intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.”
He was the first pontiff to visit Auschwitz. And, in 2001, he stood beside Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Yaacov Bleich and prayed at the main Babi Yar Memorial for the souls of 200,000 dead, including 150,000 Jews, who were massacred by the Nazis in 1941 at this ravine region. In the first two days after the slaughter, Ukrainian Jewry was destroyed.
The pope’s gesture followed criticism for his failure to respond to a diatribe from Bashar Assad during a visit to Syria.
In 2003, the Vatican opened some of its archives on the pontificate of Pius II covering the Nazi period.
In January, 2005, his health already in decline, John Paul II warmly received more than 100 Jewish leaders, rabbis and cantors at the Vatican. Shalom Aleichem, he said and urged them to do more for stronger dialogue between Jews and Catholics. That may have been almost his last audience for a large group of visitors.

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