Friday, May 25, 2018
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David Shribman

Wojtyla shaped more than his own church

I REMEMBER that my father had an abiding affection for Pope John XXIII. My daughters will remember that their father had an abiding affection for Pope John Paul II. Jews have had many enemies over the centuries, but we have had many friends as well.

Let me add one thought more, a Sunday morning reference to First Corinthians. The greatest of these was John Paul II.

The late pope lived, moved, studied, played, and prayed among Jews. He grew up with Jews, he watched Jews being taken off to Nazi captivity and then cruel death, he returned the love that many Jews had for him. It is not too much to say, and perhaps to use the phrase for the first time ever without irony, that many of his best friends were Jews.

That is why a remarkable exhibit, originated with the help of Cincinnati's Jewish community, by one Catholic institution, Xavier University, and now appearing in another Catholic institution, Duquesne University, is so moving a midsummer experience. It reminds us of the brotherhood of man, of the common faith of humanity, and of the capacity of people of different religions and outlooks to be, as the pope put it on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, "a blessing to one another."

Consider how extraordinary this is. Imagine telling someone in the years just after World War II - in the chilliest days of the Cold War - that in the coming decades the Catholic church would select as its pope a man ordained a priest behind the Iron Curtain who would undermine the very foundations of the Soviet bloc, a cleric dripping with Polish nationalism and marinated in the traditions of the Polish church who would be a beacon of hope for Jews - a light, you might say, among the nations. You would be dismissed as a dreamer.

And yet in a century that was not congenial to dreamers, all this became true. It is evidence, perhaps, that there is a God. We need not debate that question. There was a Karol Wojtyla.

The young Karol Wojtyla grew up in Wadowice, a Polish city home to Catholics and Jews alike. (Jewish population before the war: 2,000. Jewish population in 1944, a year before the war ended: 0) The pope vividly remembered the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue, which dated to the late 1880s. Both religious groups, he said, "were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God."

The removal of one of his friends' family from Wadowice was a searing experience for him, and he said at the time, perhaps hoping that saying this would make it true: "Not all Poles are anti-Semitic." Ginka Beer, his neighbor and part of the family that had to leave its home, remembered the young boy's reaction: "He did not say a word but his face went very red. I said farewell to him as kindly as I could, but he was so moved that he could not find a single word in reply."

Karol Wojtyla would continue to be moved by that memory, and eventually he would find words to reply. In 1998, as the most terrible of centuries was expiring, he wrote:

"We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn our awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham."

Duquesne University's Mellon Hall is replete with quotations much like that. The pope spoke out continually, and with great and grave eloquence, on this question, as if he knew that he was peculiarly suited - by temperament, by timing, by nationality - to convey this message. Dare we say that the pope's life was a pilgrimage? The Catholic intellectual tradition regards a pilgrimage as a journey to discharge a religious obligation.

Remember that the pope was under no theological obligation to speak out for the Jews and against anti-Semitism. Over the centuries many popes have stuck to their doctrinal knitting, using their pulpit to speak on issues of their own faith, not other people's faith, and when they ventured into other religions it was not always to express their affection. But John Paul voluntarily embarked on this pilgrimage, and voluntarily took on this task, making it an obligation. You can think of it as an obligation of affection.

The pope undertook a parallel pilgrimage in 2000, visiting the Holy Land, paying tribute to "the three religious traditions which co-exist in this land." It was a remarkable moment in his life, and a remarkable moment in time, though Pope Paul VI, who was later to renounce and condemn the notion that Jews had collective guilt for the crucifixion, visited Jerusalem in 1964. On that occasion, John Paul offered this prayer:

"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."

The pope has been dead for a little more than a year. We knew at the time that his passing meant the passing not only of a man but also of an era. We knew then, too, that this man helped shape more than his own church and that the ripples from his pebble in the papal pond extended far beyond Rome, far beyond Poland, far beyond Europe.

We knew all that. It is just important to be reminded of it. And to realize that the world could use some more Wojtyla.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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