"A Dynamic Partnership Between Jews and Catholics..."
exhibit examines close ties between John Paul II, Jewish people
Walk under a replica of the gate leading into the Krakow Ghetto, where many of the young man's Jewish friends and neighbors would be forced to relocate during World War II. Most would be murdered in concentration camps.
Listen, as the man who became Pope John Paul II, at 79, his frail hands and face sometimes shaking with emotion, declares "no one can forget or ignore" the terrible tragedy of the Shoah during a 2000 visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel.
Fit the pieces together in a major exhibit at Duquesne University, and one can understand the odyssey of John Paul from a Catholic growing up in southern Poland during the horrors of World War II to the man some interfaith leaders call perhaps the greatest pope the Jewish people have known.
"A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & the Jewish People," runs through Friday, Aug. 11, at the Catholic university in central Pittsburgh before going on to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, traces the life of the pontiff who would repeatedly condemn anti-Semitism as a sin and become the first pope to recognize the state of Israel.
John Hexter, head of the Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said after a recent visit, "He's our pope, too. . . . I think he belongs to the world."
Not everyone thought that way when the then-Polish cardinal was elected pope in 1978.
"There was a great deal of suspicion in the Jewish community," said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee in New York. "They assumed, quite incorrectly, that he would be an anti-Semite" because of his Polish background.
As the Duquesne exhibit illustrates, John Paul's early life in Wadowice would be central to his groundbreaking interfaith actions.
The exhibit shows both the church and the synagogue that dominated the small town of Wadowice, where the future pope grew up. About a sixth of the population of 12,000 was Jewish, and it was here that he met his lifelong friend, Jerzy Kluger.
Long before Pope John Paul II made history in 1986 by visiting the synagogue in Rome, the young Karol Wojtyla had been in the Wadowice synagogue.
While relations between Catholics and Jews were relatively good in Wadowice, the town was not without anti-Semitism.
The exhibit relates the memory of one Jewish woman who said the pope and his father were the only family in town to show no hostility toward Jews.
Another neighbor remembered John Paul being overcome with emotion when she told him she had to leave because of rising anti-Semitism.
"I said farewell to him as kindly as I could, but he was so moved that he could not find a single word in reply," she said. "So I just shook his father's hand and left." Whatever happened in Wadowice, and that included the formative influence of a loving father, embedded "respect and a deep love for the Jewish people," said the Rev. Joseph Hilinski, interfaith director of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, after touring the exhibit.
From the Krakow Ghetto to the Western Wall
Moving on from his early years, the exhibit takes visitors through a replica of the Krakow Ghetto gate to encounters with photos and artifacts of the horrors of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1831, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. From 1939 to 1945, 6 million Poles were murdered, more than half of them Jews.
The third part of the exhibit focuses on the future pope's early years of ministry, including his work with the Second Vatican Council that dramatically changed church relations with other religions.
The exhibit ends with striking displays showing key interfaith moments in John Paul's papacy, including dramatic photos of John Paul's historic visit to Israel. One iconic image shows John Paul leaving a note for God in the crevice of the Western Wall. The note said, "We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."
At Yad Vashem, the pope ceremonially rekindled the eternal flame burning in memory of the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis and laid a wreath over the ashes of victims from six concentration camps.
"Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to heed their cry?" said the pope, close to tears throughout the ceremony.
At his side, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called John Paul's visit to Yad Vashem "a climax in this historic journey of healing" in Jewish-Catholic relations.
Carole Zawatsky, director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, said seeing the video of the pope at Yad Vashem helped make real to her a person who was almost a mythical figure.
"What an incredibly bold and brave and maybe frightening act," she said.
A respect for Judaism
The official changes in the church's attitude toward the Jewish community were put in place in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
But the pontiff, with his personal commitment, dramatic public actions and mystical charismatic personality, brought the issue to the world's attention, said a group of Jewish and Catholic leaders and scholars after a tour of the exhibit.
"I would say Pope John Paul II was the first person to enact in a very public way - beyond word - the spirit of the letter," said Anne Clifford, a theology professor at Duquesne.
In his words and body language in places such as Yad Vashem, John Paul combined a respect for Judaism as a sister religion "with a real love," said Rabbi Aaron Mackler, a theology professor at Duquesne and author of an "Introduction to Jewish and Catholic Bioethics: A Comparative Analysis."
Not all issues have been resolved. Tension remains over the Vatican's limiting access to archives that could shed more light on the church's role during World War II.
But positive Jewish-Catholic relations are part of the mainstream of Catholic teaching, along with the strongest condemnations of anti-Semitism in modern church history, scholars said.
And that is a lot in one papacy.
"From a Jewish historical point of view," Rudin said, John Paul is considered "probably the greatest pope the Jewish people have ever known."
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