Nearly 20 years ago, as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, I was privileged to be included in a group of 20 national Jewish leaders invited to have an audience with Pope John II during his momentous visit to the United States.
As I was the sole shomer Shabbat invitee serving a congregation, arriving on Saturday evening at John Cardinal O’Connor’s residence in Manhattan by 8:15 p.m. posed a logistical dilemma. To facilitate my participation, Mayor Paul Jemas of Caldwell arranged for me to have a police escort from my synagogue in Caldwell at 7:15 p.m. directly to an awaiting helicopter at the Essex County Airport in nearby Fairfield.
I was taken into the heavens in order to bypass traffic and to arrive in New York for a security check right on time. The pilot had been hesitant to fly in overcast skies. But the mayor exhorted him, “You are transporting a leader of rabbis around the world to meet with the Pope. If there ever was a time to be up in the heavens, this is that moment!”
Why had we made such an extraordinary effort? It was a gesture of gratitude for the remarkable pro-Jewish achievements of the papacy during John Paul II’s lengthy term. Building upon Pope John XXIII’s 1965 Vatican II repudiation of the charge of Jews being “Christ-killers,” John Paul II stressed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains in effect eternally. He referred not to an “Old Testament” but rather to “Hebrew Scriptures.” He ended official efforts by the church to proselytize among Jews. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, proclaiming in the presence of Rome’s chief rabbi a “spiritual bond” between the two faith communities.
John Paul II also sought to intensify dialogue between Catholics and Jews as not only a civic virtue but also as a religious commitment. He labeled anti-Semitism a sin against God. He affirmed that the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust require teshuva on the part of Christendom throughout Europe. To that end, the pope established Holocaust memorial ceremonies at the Vatican, emphasizing the unique nature of the Shoa. Pope John Paul II also marked the turn of the millennium in 2000 as an interfaith jubilee rather than a time for Christian triumphalism.
Furthermore, John Paul II made history by establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. No longer would the Vatican call for Jerusalem to be internationalized; rather, it would be left to the parties for negotiations. No longer would the Vatican insist upon being present at the diplomatic table. He recognized that the peace process should singularly involve the two parties to the dispute, Israel and the Palestinians. In order to promote bonds of fellowship, John Paul II inaugurated ongoing papal visits to the Jewish state, with his pilgrimage including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, and other sites essential to Jewish identity.
This week Jews around the world join with Catholic neighbors and friends in welcoming the bestowing of sainthood upon John Paul II and upon another wonderful friend of world Jewry, Pope John XXIII. Judaism teaches us to practice hakarat hatov: We must remember and acknowledge acts of goodness extended to us by others. Bridging many of the gaps that had separated Jews and Christians throughout the ages is an act of hesed for which Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are to be eternally blessed.