Some called him the "Jews' Pope" a title bestowed upon a much respected and admired religious leader.
John Paul II. He was the Polish Pope who visited Auschwitz in 1979, just after taking office. He was the Pope who, in 1986, visited the synagogue of Rome. He was the Pope who came to Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall in 2000.
The Pope actually liked Jews. As a young man Jews were his friends and colleagues. In his final years he had more to do with Jews than any other Pope before him. Much has been written about the Jews Pope's attitude toward Jewish-Christian relations. He has been credited as a hero and great humanitarian responsible for enforcing a change in the attitude of the Church toward Antisemitism.
On most issues the Pope was a theological conservative. When it came to approaching Jewish issues, he was a theologically visionary.
For the Pope, Antisemitism was wrong, plain and simple, wrong. Antisemitism symbolized the Dark Ages. Given his understanding of history and the Bible, the hatred of the Jew on the theological level was totally unjustified. Moving away from Antisemitism was moving the Church, finally, out of the Dark Ages. Theologically eliminating the hatred of the Jews was the perfect symbol of the modernization of the Church. It was a move toward modernity that neither touched nor eroded mainstream theological issues like marriage, homosexuality, and abortion, issues that might shake the foundations of Church teachings.
There is a parallel between the Jews and Europe and the Jews and the Church. The Jews were the only true minority in Europe. No European government could continue to restrict Jewish rights and confine Jews in ghettoes and call itself modern.
So, too, went the thinking and rationale of the Pope. Recasting attitudes towards Jews enabled the Church to cast off past hatred and propel itself into the modern world all in one big step. Most importantly for the Pope as well as the Church, it was done in the name of forgiveness. John Paul II asked forgiveness for the past actions of the Church throughout history.
On his visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall the Pope, as tradition dictates, placed a note between the centuries old stones of the Wall. The text of the note was later made public. This is what he wrote, please note that it was addressed to "God."
God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
Those few words explain it all.
In a few sentences the Pope transformed the Church's perspective of the Jew. Jews were moved from the world of persecution where it was accepted and even requisite to oppress them for their past and for what they had done and embraced in brotherhood. For the first time, Jews were recognized for their original contribution in setting the foundation of Christianity.
How amazingly simple and correspondingly profound.
The Pope was not only eliminating officially sanctioned Antisemitism because it is wrong. The Pope was bolstering, protecting and insuring the future of his Church. He was helping the Church confront future challenges.
John Paul II. The Jew's Pope. Everyone's visionary. May his memory be blessed.