The Pope on the Jews

John Paul II put great emphasis on improving Catholic-Jewish relations.


During the papacy of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005 ), Catholic-Jewish relations, in many ways, soared to new heights: the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel, while the pope became the first-ever to visit a synagogue and later made a pilgrimage to Israel. He also acknowledged the Church’s history of anti-Semitism and called on Catholics to repent for it, often using the Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah. The pontiff referred to Jews as “our brothers” and won praise for deepening the commitment to interfaith understanding formulated by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

At the same time, the John Paul II was criticized by some in the Jewish world for stopping short of a full accounting of the church’s historical sins against the Jews. These critics note that the pope did not condemn or apologize for the Church’s actions in the Shoah (Holocaust), nor did he fully disclose information relating to the Vatican’s Holocaust-era activities. He defended the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII, and advanced him toward sainthood along with and other controversial figures, such as the Jew-turned-Catholic Holocaust martyr Edith Stein. John Paul II also received flak at times for criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians while–in the eyes of some critics–not voicing equivalent support for Israel’s security needs and denouncing all forms of terrorism.

The papacy of John Paul II has been lengthy, and the pope has engaged with and spoken about Jewish issues and concerns in many different ways, leaving ample room for both defenders and opponents to make their case.

The following are excerpts from public remarks Pope John Paul II made about Jewish-Catholic relations, Israel, anti-Semitism, the Shoah, and other related issues.

On Revelation & Interfaith Cooperation

From an address by the pope to a delegation of the World Jewish Congress, May 22, 2003:

God’s word is a lamp and a light to our path; it keeps us alive and gives us new life (cf. Ps 119: 105, 107). This word is given to our Jewish brothers and sisters especially in the Torah. To Christians this word finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Although we hold and interpret this heritage differently, we both feel bound to bear common witness to God’s fatherhood and his love for his creatures.

Even if today’s world is often marked by violence, repression and exploitation, these realities do not represent the last word about our human destiny. God promises a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. Is 65:17; Rev 21:1). We know that God will wipe away all tears (cf. Is 25:8), and that mourning and pain will be no more (cf. Rev 21:4). Jews and Christians believe that our lives are a journey towards the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In light of the rich common religious heritage we share, we can consider the present as a challenging opportunity for joint endeavors of peace and justice in our world. The defense of the dignity of every human being made in the image and likeness of God, is a cause which must engage all believers. This sort of practical cooperation between Christians and Jews requires courage and vision, as well as trust that it is God who brings forth good from our efforts: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Ps 127:1).

John Paul II with Rabbi Ilio Toaff, then Rome’s chief rabbi, on April 13, 1986, when the pontiff became the first-ever to visit a synagogue. Photo credit: Beth Hatefusoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora)

On Israel, Anti-Semitism, & Mideast Conflict

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