Commentary: A Pope’s Legacy
When John Paul II’s last testament was made public following his death in April, it was remarkable for mentioning only two living people: his personal secretary and Rome’s former chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, who hosted the pontiff in 1986 on the first visit in 2,000 years made by a pope to a synagogue since Saint Peter.
To say that John Paul II was a friend of the Jews is an understatement. His compassion was evident in the aftermath of World War II. In 1942, a Jewish couple in the Krakow ghetto gave their son to a childless Polish Catholic couple, hoping to save him from the Nazi destruction. It was not the parents’ intention that the boy be raised a Catholic but the adoptive parents sought out a priest to have the child baptized. When the priest realized that such a baptism would violate the Jewish parents’ wishes, he declined to participate in the ritual—a grave decision.
That priest was Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
In the days before john paul was buried, many friends and admirers offered testimonies to his unique personality. None was more moving than the memories of Gilbert Levine, Brooklyn-born maestro of the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra, who for 17 years was a friend of the pope. In 1994, he conducted a memorial concert at the Vatican in memory of Holocaust victims. Levine, whose mother-in-law survived Auschwitz, spoke with the pope personally about the war and the Holocaust.
Far more remarkable were interactions he had with John Paul about Judaism. “He nurtured my Jewishness,” Levine recalled. “I went from being a reformed secular Jew…to… my son [being] bar mitzva in an Orthodox synagogue….” On that occasion, the pope had a letter sent from the Vatican congratulating Levine’s son. “It was astounding,” the maestro recalled. “It was a letter that said, ‘You should be proud of your Jewish heritage and live it out to its full.’”
Jews can only hope the new pope, Benedict XVI, will show such a degree of care and understanding.
Yet an appreciation of Pope John Paul would not be entirely honest without noting that his papacy is only the beginning of what could be a historic new relationship between Catholics and the Jewish people.
Gilbert Levine’s memories stand out because they emphasize the pontiff’s appreciation of Judaism as a living religion. To be frank, we should acknowledge that most of the rest of John Paul’s teachings about our people emphasized a different aspect of our spiritual existence—namely, Jewish suffering at Christian hands.
There was his Church’s 1998 “confession” concerning the Holocaust in the document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.” There was his 2000 trip to Israel, where he visited Yad Vashem and left a note in the Western Wall begging forgiveness for anti-Semitism. There was also a formal apology issued that year.
In the legacy of his papacy, the theme of Jewish victimhood tends to overshadow the more positive message he conferred on Levine. What we Jews should want from Pope Benedict would be for the Jewish-Catholic relationship to advance through the door John Paul opened, with Jews no longer being considered sufferers needing pity, but partners in the work of illuminating the world with the knowledge of the God of Israel.
Had John Paul lived longer in the good health he deserved, I believe that is precisely the step he would have wished to take. It is the step Jews should encourage the new pope to consider and to embrace.
David Klinghoffer’s new book is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday). His Web site is www.davidklinghoffer.com.