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 was lengthy, and the pope engaged with and spoke 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.” (Psalms 127:1)
On Israel, Anti-Semitism, & Mideast Conflict
From an address by the pope to the new Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Sept. 18, 2000.
The Holy Land will always occupy a central place in the minds and hearts of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Year 2000, with its commemoration of the birth of Jesus, could not but draw the loving attention of millions of Christian people in every corner of the earth to the places where Jesus lived, died and rose again. The vivid experience of my pilgrimage to the Holy Places lives on in my spirit as an extraordinary grace of God and a kind of testimony that I would like to leave, especially to the younger generation, as an invitation to build a new era of relations between Christians and Jews….
The Church is fully aware that “she draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree on to which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles” (Nostra Aetate, 4). The spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so great and so vital to the religious and moral health of the human family that every effort must be made to advance and expand our dialogue, especially on biblical, theological and ethical matters. And a fresh mutual and sincere attempt must be made at every level to help Christians and Jews to know, respect and esteem more fully each other’s beliefs and traditions.
This is the surest way to overcome the prejudices of the past and to raise a barrier against the forms of anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia, which are re-appearing in some places today. Today as always, it is not genuine religious faith and practice which give rise to the tragedy of discrimination and persecution, but loss of faith and the rise of a selfish and materialistic outlook bereft of true values, a culture of emptiness. Therefore your words, Mr. Ambassador, about the need for moral leadership in responding to some of the more daunting challenges facing mankind in the new millennium find a ready echo in the convictions of the Holy See.
A continuing source of sadness is the elusive character of a definitive peace in the Middle East. We all rejoice every time a step forward is announced in the complex negotiations which have become an essential feature of relations between Israel and its neighbors, especially the Palestinian Authority. The continuation of dialogue and negotiation is itself a significant development. And it is important to acknowledge just how substantial is the progress made so far, lest those involved be discouraged at the size of the task still ahead. Sometimes the obstacles to peace appear so great and so many that to face them seems humanly impossible. But what seemed unthinkable even a few short years ago is now a reality or at least a matter of open discussion, and this must convince all concerned that a solution is possible. It must encourage everyone to press forward with hope and perseverance.
Concerning the delicate question of Jerusalem, what is important is that the way forward be the path of dialogue and agreement, not force and imposition. And what is of special concern to the Holy See is that the unique religious character of the Holy City be preserved by a special, internationally guaranteed statute. The history and present reality of interreligious relations in the Holy Land is such that no just and lasting peace is foreseeable without some form of support from the international community. The purpose of this international support would be the conservation of the cultural and religious patrimony of the Holy City, a patrimony which belongs to Jews, Christians and Muslims all over the world and to the entire international community….
The end result must be–as I said during my visit–a Jerusalem and a Holy Land in which the various religious communities succeed in living and working together in friendship and harmony, a Jerusalem that will truly be a City of Peace for all peoples. Then we shall all repeat the words of the Prophet: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3).
On the Holocaust
From the pope’s address at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, March 23, 2000:
1. In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah. My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the War. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived….
2. We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism. How could man have such utter contempt for man? Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a Godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.
The honor given to the “just gentiles” by the State of Israel at Yad Vashem for having acted heroically to save Jews, sometimes to the point of giving their own lives, is a recognition that not even in the darkest hour is every light extinguished. That is why the Psalms, and the entire Bible, though well aware of the human capacity for evil, also proclaim that evil will not have the last word. Out of the depths of pain and sorrow, the believer’s heart cries out: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God'” (Ps 31:14).
3. Jews and Christians share an immense spiritual patrimony, flowing from God’s self-revelation. Our religious teachings and our spiritual experience demand that we overcome evil with good. We remember, but not with any desire for vengeance or as an incentive to hatred. For us, to remember is to pray for peace and justice, and to commit ourselves to their cause. Only a world at peace, with justice for all, can avoid repeating the mistakes and terrible crimes of the past.
As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place. The Church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being (cf. Gen 1:26).
4. In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the twentieth century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in faith (cf. We Remember, V).
The world must heed the warning that comes to us from the victims of the Holocaust and from the testimony of the survivors. Here at Yad Vashem the memory lives on, and burns itself onto our souls. It makes us cry out:
“I hear the whispering of many–terror on every side!–But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’.” (Ps 31:13-15).