The newest saints and the future of Catholic-Jewish relations

John Paul II honed John XXIII’s revolutionary teachings on Jews, but issues remain between the two faith communities

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, right, kisses the hand of Pope John Paul II during a ceremony at the Vatican. Bergoglio, who since then became Pope Francis, cleared Pope John Paul II for sainthood (photo credit: AP/Sergio Rubin)
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, right, kisses the hand of Pope John Paul II during a ceremony at the Vatican. Bergoglio, who since then became Pope Francis, cleared Pope John Paul II for sainthood (photo credit: AP/Sergio Rubin)

On Sunday, on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the two popes who revolutionized the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews — John XXIII and John Paul II — are being recognized as saints in a ceremony at the Vatican. There is, as expected, palpable excitement in the Catholic world, with more than 1 million pilgrims set to attend the ceremonies. But it is the reaction of Jewish organizations and religious leaders to the canonizations that is truly striking.

The two popes are “the ones most responsible for the dramatic revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations in our times,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, who was set to attend the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.

“They are the two great heroes of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation,” Rosen told The Times of Israel.

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman said in a statement that, for the Jewish community, “Popes John Paul II and John XXIII have already been saints for a long time.”

Through their personal example and official teachings, the two popes changed Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism, both past and present, leaving behind a Church with new energy and focus. Their legacies guide the Church’s ongoing dialogue with Jewish communities across the globe and with Israel, but issues do remain. Many Jews and Catholics hope that the double canonizations signal an intention by the Vatican to intensify dialogue in an effort to bridge outstanding disagreements between the two faith communities.

A journey still at its beginnings

Angelo Roncalli was born in Italy in 1881. He spent his early career as a diplomat for the Vatican, including nine years as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece — from 1935-1944. In that capacity, Roncalli saved thousands Jews from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, issuing false documents and lobbying Axis officials personally.

“We are dealing with one of the great mysteries in the history of humanity,” Roncalli wrote at the time. ”Poor children of Israel. Daily I hear their groans around me. They are relatives and fellow countrymen of Jesus. May the Divine Savior come to their aid and enlighten them.”

Roncalli succeeded Pius XII as pope in 1958, with the expectation that the 78-year-old would be a transitional figure. From the beginning, it was clear that he intended to be anything but. He stunned the Church by choosing John XXIII as his papal name, last used by an infamous Antipope, or pretender.

Portrait of Pope John XXIII (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Portrait of Pope John XXIII (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Months later, he unexpectedly announced the Second Vatican Council.

John’s openness to groundbreaking research on the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, done by the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, led to a fateful meeting in 1960, and ultimately to the creation of the document that would become Nostra Aetate, the landmark 1965 Vatican II document on Catholicism’s relationship to other religions.

He was a driving force behind the council. Though there had been some discussion of a council under John’s two predecessors, “there is a distinct sense in his speeches that John reached the decision significantly on his own,” emphasized Andrew Staron, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Wheeling Jesuit University. “Or perhaps better, John himself spoke of it as a sudden inspiration.”

Though not a direct factor in the proceedings, he was an inspiration for many of the bishops. “John took pride in saying that he himself wrote the opening speech,” said Staron.

Vatican II was not primarily about the Church’s relationship with Jews, but rethinking its approach toward Judaism and the Jewish people was an integral part of the council’s self-imposed mission of ressourcement and aggiornamento— returning to its sources and updating itself to better engage with the modern world.

John died in 1963, before Vatican II’s work could be finished. But he left his indisputable mark on Jewish-Catholic relations. “He began a journey that has already yielded enormous fruit on both the global and local levels, and that is really still just at its beginnings,” Murray Watson, co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning at Ontario’s Western University, told The Times of Israel.

John XXIII was very conscious both of the “dark side” of traditional Catholic attitudes toward Jews, and to the ways those teachings had been exploited by Nazism in terribly anti-Semitic ways, Watson explained. He enacted several noticeable changes to Catholic teachings and prayers, doing away with a reference to Jews as “perfidious” in the Good Friday liturgy, and striking language about “the Hebrew error” in rejecting Jesus from the baptismal ritual for Jewish converts to Christianity.

“In many ways, John XXIII personally initiated the process that has led us [Catholics and other Christians] to where we are today, thinking about Jews and Judaism in a dramatically different way,” Watson said.

John also laid the groundwork for the establishment of official diplomatic relations with Israel three decades later, meeting with Israeli officials and replying to a cable from President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. He even had one of his major encyclicals on social justice and peace (called Mater et Magistra, published in 1961) translated into modern Hebrew, so that it could be more easily read in Israel.

John was recognized as harboring sincere warmth for the Jewish community, a feeling shaped by what he witnessed during the Holocaust. Rome’s Jewish community responded in kind, with then chief rabbi Elio Toaff leading a delegation to St. Peter’s Square to pray for Pope John the night before his death in 1963.

‘You are our elder brothers’

Born Karol Jozef Wojytla in Poland in 1920, John Paul II’s Jewish childhood friends would have a marked influence on his emphases as pope. Wojytla lived through the Nazi occupation in Poland, hiding from a roundup and saving a 14-year-old Jewish refugee girl who had collapsed on a railway platform.

Wojytla was elected pope on the eighth ballot in October 1978. His papacy was “characterized by a courageous engagement with the world and an emphasis on divine mercy,” said Staron, the Wheeling Jesuit University assistant professor. “Taking advantage of the changes in communication, he transformed the office of the pope into that of the global pastor.”

Relations with Jews were a focal point of his papacy from the outset. It was no coincidence that one of John Paull II’s first private audiences was with Jersy Kluger, a Jewish childhood friend.

In 1986, John Paul became the first pope since St. Peter to visit a Jewish house of prayer. Standing in Rome’s Tempio Maggiore synagogue, John Paul said that “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. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

In dozens of letters and public statements, John Paul II created an impressive body of teachings on Jewish-Christian relations, in which he denounced anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.

Pope John Paul II places a letter between the stones of Jerusalem’s Western Wall on March 26, 2000. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Israel Government Press Office via Getty Images/JTA)
Pope John Paul II places a letter between the stones of Jerusalem’s Western Wall on March 26, 2000. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Israel Government Press Office via Getty Images/JTA)

“John Paul presided over the publication of expanded guidelines for Catholic teaching and preaching about Jews in 1985, and over the issuing of a major 2002 document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, entitled ‘The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,’ which offered guidance on how to understand the relationship of the two Testaments, and how to interpret some of the more difficult or controversial passages in the New Testament,” Watson said.

A 1,200-page compendium of official Church teachings on interreligious dialogue was published shortly after John Paul’s death in 2005, the overwhelming majority of which came from John Paul’s time in office .

In 1993, John Paul took the long-overdue step of recognizing Israel. He followed up in 2000 with a pilgrimage to the Jewish state, where Israelis were struck by an image of the pontiff leaving a written prayer in a crack in the Western Wall asking for forgiveness for Catholics’ treatment of Jews, his visit to Yad Vashem, and his meetings with Israeli officials.

As in John’s final days, Rome’s chief rabbi led a delegation to the Vatican to pray for John Paul’s recovery shortly before his death.

“He repeatedly reaffirmed the ongoing nature of the covenants made between God and the Jewish people.” said Watson. “His entire life was very much marked by his deep love for the Jewish people, even if some of his decisions came across as insensitive or less than helpful.”

A life of heroic virtue

The Vatican will not be making John XXIII and John Paul II into saints on Sunday. In fact, it cannot make anyone into a saint. “Only God does that,” said Watson. The Church’s role is to discern and acknowledge, based on the evidence at hand, those individuals whose lives should be held up as models of Christian virtue.

“The official canonization declares that this particular person who lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’ is now with God in heaven,” explained Staron. “The belief in the saint’s intercession is conviction that this person is praying alongside us, asking God to help us.”

The process of being recognized as a saint is usually a comprehensive one. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a Vatican body, carries out a detailed study of the individual’s life and writings. Arguments for and against canonization are both heard, with the promoter of the faith, or devil’s advocate, presenting the case against sainthood, while God’s advocate offers evidence for canonization.

The first step is for the Congregation to recommend the individual as a “servant of God.” The next stage is for a team of medical experts to determine that an extremely sick patient was healed – “immediately, totally and inexplicably,” said Watson — after asking for the servant of God’s prayers, at which point the pope may beatify the individual, declaring that person “blessed.”

The pope can declare that person a saint if he or she is deemed to have performed a second miracle. This third step is called “canonization,” since a saint can be included in the Eucharistic “canon,” the central prayer of the Catholic Mass.

Both John and John Paul had significant components of the process waived for them. Though the process generally cannot begin until at least after five years after a person’s death, and requires comprehensive interviews with the individuals close associates, Pope Benedict waived that requirement for his predecessor John Paul II. Francis, the current pope, determined that since there was already a widespread belief that John XXIII had lived a particularly holy life, the requirement for documented miracles could be waived.

Contradictory or complementary?

Though scholars and clergy are overwhelmingly positive on the record of the two popes in terms of Jewish-Catholic relations, the question of their overall legacy, especially within the Church, is more complex.

For the Church, John and John Paul represent two forces, “some would say contradictory and others would say complementary,” said Rosen, the AJC’s interreligious affairs director.

George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and biographer of John Paul II, saw the popes as the complementary “bookends” of Vatican II. “John XXIII is the pope who summoned Vatican II and John Paul II is the pope who gave Vatican II its authoritative interpretation,” he said.

Some Catholics argue that while John was the liberal modernizer, John Paul II consolidated the Vatican II process while reigning in its excesses, But critics claim that he restrained the process, and that Sunday’s ceremony was meant to satisfy both liberal and conservative camps in the Church.

Staron said some aspects of John Paul’s legacy were up for debate. “There are real concerns about his centralization of power in Rome, his inaction during the early days of the sexual abuse crisis, his transformation of the papacy into an office of ‘celebrity,’ and his criticism of liberation theology,” he said.

“However, if my idea of his papacy as an interpretive lens for the [Vatican II] council is valid, he also serves as a model for how Catholics are to engage the world: openly, courageously, and with love and mercy.”

Watson agreed that the personal example of both pontiffs — warmth, respect and love for the Jewish people — was a key piece of their legacy.

“They modeled in their own lives how Christians could (and should) relate to Jews, and there are lots of wonderful stories and photos that illustrate that approach, including a wonderful story of how Pope John XXIII stopped outside the main synagogue of Rome on a Sunday afternoon, to bestow his blessing on the congregation as they were leaving after the Shabbat morning service,” he said.

In addition, said Watson, they left a significant body of work guiding Catholics on how to live out their faith, including relations with Jews.

Still, there are some small Catholic groups who think the changes in the Church since Vatican II constitute a betrayal of true Catholicism, which blamed all Jews in all times for Jesus’s death. But they are an unrepresentative minority, whose ideas have been formally rejected by the Church.

Light to the nations

The big question is whether the spirit of John and John Paul will guide Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the future, and what the dual canonizations herald for the future of the relationship.

“I hope they mean that the path that has been established will be pursued with even greater intensity, so that both Jews and Catholics can be ‘light to the nations’ in a darkening world,” said Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer.

From his dialogue with his close friend, Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Francis has given indications that he aims to continue the path set forth by the two pontiffs.

“The council did not provide the Church with an authoritative interpretive lens by which we might understand it,” Staron underscored. “We have its history and documents, but no real illuminated path going forward. I think that by canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II together, Pope Francis is offering John Paul’s legacy as an authoritative guide for understanding the council.”

Catholic clergy attend a procession during Holy Saturday inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: AP/Bernat Armangue)
Catholic clergy attend a procession during Holy Saturday inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (photo credit: AP/Bernat Armangue)

Still, challenges in the relationship remain. Weigel believes that the changes that have taken place in the Catholic Church since Vatican II have yet to fully make an impact with the Jewish community.

“I have the impression that both the Church’s teaching on its religious debt to Judaism, the Church’s repentance for the sins against Jews committed by Christians in the past, and the fact that Catholic worship draws heavily from the Hebrew Bible are not as well known as they should be among my Jewish friends and interlocutors,” he said. “These things take time, of course, but it’s been 50 years since Vatican II and it’s important that the new direction taken by Catholicism in its relationship with both the past and with living Judaism be as widely understood as possible in the Jewish community.”

He said he saw academic dialogue between Jewish and Catholic scholars in the US as a model for the rest of the world.

Jews might also feel the Church could transmit the changes in its relationship to Judaism more effectively to the grassroots Catholic community around the world, Rosen noted.

Problematic issues of greater complexity do remain. The role of the Vatican generally, and Pope Pius XII specifically, during the Holocaust remains a key point of contention between the Vatican and Jewish leaders. Many in the Church establishment praise his role during World War II, some even calling for his canonization, while Jews contend that he was more interested in protecting the Church than speaking out forcefully against the Nazis and saving Jewish lives. The Vatican’s refusal to open its archives to scholars looking to investigate the question has added to tensions surrounding Pius XII.

The warming diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican are also marked by persistent disagreements over control of holy sites, sovereignty over Jerusalem, taxes, and some of Israel’s security policies.

Though the Catholic Church has been successful in reaching Jewish religious and communal leaders, and to some extent, congregations in the US and other countries, its outreach to Israeli Jews has lagged far behind.

“We could do better at this, in my view,” lamented Weigel, “and the direction in which to ‘do better’ was set by John Paul II. That Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which the Christian population is increasing should tell Catholics something important about both Israel and its neighbors.”

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