Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: John XXIII and John Paul II: Two Catholic saints for the Jews

A scene from the Holocaust, date unknown. Religion News Service file photo

NEW YORK (RNS) It is a poignant coincidence that Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized as Catholic saints on the eve of Yom Hashoah, the international day of Holocaust remembrance observed in Israel and by Jews around the world.

These two popes’ personal narratives are inseparable from the Holocaust, and their reactions to the systematic genocide of the Jews played a critical role in the revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations during the last half century.

A scene from the Holocaust, date unknow. Religion News Service file photo

A scene from the Holocaust, date unknown. Religion News Service file photo

The annihilation of 6 million Jews — one-third of world Jewry — and Eastern Europe’s towering Jewish civilization was an unparalleled tragedy enabled by nearly 2,000 years of Christian demonization of Jews and Judaism. Too often, too many stood by as Jews were slaughtered like animals during World War II.

Like many Jews of my generation, it is both a national and personal horror. My father’s aunt and first cousins were murdered by the Nazis in the forest outside Bialystok, their hometown in Poland. But if telling the Holocaust story ends there, it has not been fully told.

We also have a responsibility to tell the story of the many who risked their lives to save Jews. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, has identified more than 25,000 non-Jews who are called “Righteous Among the Nations.” Additionally, we should recognize the collective self-reflection of the churches in admitting Christian complicity and demonstrating a commitment to creating a world where the lessons of the Holocaust have been learned.

During the Holocaust, as a Vatican diplomat in Turkey, Greece and France, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli saved numerous Jews. Issuing false baptismal certificates to Jewish children was one of his methods. Later, as Pope John XXIII, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.” He instructed Cardinal Augustine Bea to shepherd a new Catholic approach to Jews and Judaism.

John XXIII is the father of, but did not live to see, the transformational document “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”), which rejected the charge that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus. It also denounced any form of anti-Semitism, and validated God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. It was John XXIII who first edited the problematic Good Friday prayer for the Jews, striking an ignominious description of the Jews as “perfidious.”

He famously welcomed a visiting Jewish group with the biblical exclamation, “I am your brother, Joseph,” referencing his birth name, Giuseppe.

Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyła, was an eyewitness to the horrors of the Holocaust as the Jewish friends of his Polish childhood perished. As pope from 1978 to 2005, he breathed life into the words of “Nostra Aetate” by issuing guidelines for its proper implementation in Catholic-Jewish relations.

He was the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, made pilgrimages to Holocaust sites, established Vatican diplomatic relations with Israel, and made the first papal state visit to Israel. In a crevice in the Western Wall, he placed a note with the following words: “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.”

These two popes were integral to the post-Holocaust transformation of Catholic and wider Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. It’s easy to take this change for granted, but this development moved the church from a force that endangered Jewish survival to one committed to the future of Jews and Judaism.

We must never forget the centuries of Christian enmity that preceded the Holocaust, but we must also be ready to praise those who modeled a new narrative for the billions of souls in their care.

RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Noam E. Marans

Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Noam E. Marans

Yom Hashoah will always be about the 6 million and my relatives, born and unborn, from Bialystok. But this Yom Hashoah, I also will be thinking about two righteous among the nations who deserve Jewish “hakarat hatov,” recognition of good that has been done, as Catholics celebrate their two newest saints.

“Yehi zikhram barukh,” the Jews would say. May their memory serve as a blessing.

(Rabbi Noam E. Marans is director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.)


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Noam E. Marans


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  • From my very earliest recollections, I cannot remember a time when I did not love and revere the Jewish people and I could never understand how any Christian could hate the Jews! I knew, even as a tiny child that Yeshua, Miryam and all the apostles and most of the first followers of “The Way” were Jewish! And the God of the Covenant does not forget His promises or His Chosen People!
    Mazel tov! Many, many blessings!

  • @Sister Geraldine,
    You say, “I could never understand how any Christian could hate the Jews!”

    Easy. The Bible couldn’t be clearer. Jews are enemies of the Lord as they would not accept Jesus the supposed ‘Messiah’ as their “King.”

    “bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King, and EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Perhaps the most dangerous words in any holy book, this dark excerpt is from the Parable of the Minas where Jesus tells the story of Himself (as a Nobleman) returning to find many people have neglected His Lordship and disobeyed.

    As a Sister, I’m sure you know your Bible very well and dwell on such verses lovingly. Once we dispense with the delusions, much of its hatreds are directed at Jews themselves.

    Of course if one does not read the Bible one can imagine all sorts of happy fantasies – God is love, etc.

  • While we are on the topic of Catholics and Yom Hashoa, there is one member of the Catholic faith who probably deserves sainthood, will probably never get it in relation to the events of the Holocaust. Frank Foley.

    Foley was the kind of man that if they made a movie about him, people would accuse the producers of making it all up. A cross between Otto Schindler and James Bond. As a member of the British Secret Service, he worked as an “illegal” agent under the cover of the British Consulate in Germany during the pre-war years.

    He was stationed in Berlin from 1922 to 1939 and he used his position as Passport Control Officer at the British embassy to save thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps. From 1935, an ever growing number of Jews appealed to his office in order to obtain immigration visas to Palestine, to the United Kingdom and to all other parts of the then British Empire.

    Defying the Foreign Office, he bent the rules to issue 10,000 visas for British Mandatory Palestine. He did not enjoy diplomatic immunity in Berlin* and was running a serious risk. Had he been exposed by the Nazis, he would have suffered a much worse fate than being persona non grata. He did not enjoy diplomatic immunity because his true purpose at the embassy was as a spymaster. Foley’s network recruited German scientific “assets” to undermine the Nazi regime. So not only did he rescue thousands, he was active in working to take down the Nazi regime through his work as a spy.

    John Kelley, Foley’s nephew, an Anglican priest said about his uncle: “I believe that God put Frank Foley in Berlin to do His Work. Foley did what he did as a witness to the Christian churches to show what they should have done at that time, but did not do.”

  • @Larry,

    Frank Foley, an exemplar of moral courage, deserves something MUCH higher than to be claimed a “saint” – a title to live down rather than up.

    The saints are mostly a clutch of hysterical, superstitious virgins venerated mostly for their cowardly and slavish obedience to Catholicism and its offensive, repressive psychological and geographical tactics; in some cases for the pagans they conquered. (St. George)

    Frank Foley was a Great Man. But No primate should worship another primate – The best we can do with such wonderful people is to tell the story and hold high the example of moral courage.

    Why besmirch his greatness by lumping him in with the inhumanity of this pantheon? :

    St. Louis IX (marauding crusader, Inquisition terrorist)
    St. Aquinas (Kill “non-believers”)
    Saint Junipero Serra (a member of the Spanish Inquisition)
    St Maria Maddalena De’ Pazzi (self-abuse to the point of death)
    Saints Robert Bellarmine (“burn the heretics alive”)
    Saint Thomas More (“burn heretics alive”)
    Saint Ambrose of Milan (Jews are the worst creatures on earth)
    Saint John Chrysostom (Jews are demons, synagogues are caverns of devils)

    Enough with religion and its claims.
    To be a great human should be enough.

  • Point well taken.

    Frankly I don’t think John 23 and JP2 should be praised too much for their relations with the Jews. What they did was essentially CYA for the Church’s alacrity during the Holocaust. To save the reputation of the church when the weight of world opinion was beginning to examine their role in a critical manner. If the church did not drop the old antisemitism, it risked massive opposition from all corners of the developed world.

    JP2 did much to try to appropriate the Holocaust for Catholics which many don’t remember. The “Auschwitz cross” springs to mind. The beautification of Pope Pius XII also comes up as well.

    After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Catholic Church had to start playing nice with the Jews if they wanted their holy sites open to the public. So there was a definite vested interest in the Vatican not antagonizing worldwide Judaisim.

  • One thing I learned when I was a visiting scholar for two months at Beit Warszawa, a Reform synagogue in Warsaw, in the Fall of 2010 was that the revival of Jewish music and Jewish life in today’s Poland was in part stimulated by the man who became Pope John Paul II

    In an interview of Sir Gilbert Levine by Cecile S. Holmes, distributed by Religious News Service (1/5/11) that revealed John Paul’s role in the resurrection of Jewish music in Poland by the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.

    This was in many ways the beginning of the revival of a ‘no longer hidden and suppressed’ Jewish life in Poland.

    Sir Gilbert Levine, was a Jew from Brooklyn. In 1987, Levine was invited to be guest conductor and artistic director of the Krakow Philharmonic in John Paul’s native Poland. The invitation was unsettling since Levine’s grandparents had fled Poland to escape the Nazis and members of his wife’s family had died in Auschwitz. Also living in Krakow in 1987 meant living behind the Iron Curtain, but Levine accepted anyway.

    Soon after Levine arrived in Krakow, the Vatican invited him to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul. That invitation led to others, and Levine was invited to conduct a concert in 1988 to mark the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s election.

    Thus began almost two decades of musical collaboration and a joint mission of peacemaking. Three years later, in 1991, the first public Jewish Cultural Festival was held in Krakow. John Paul and Levine also worked together on a 1994 concert to commemorate the Holocaust.

    When Levine arrived in Krakow there was no Jewish music festival in Krakow or anywhere else in Poland; but his presence and his close connection with the first Polish Pope inspired some non-Jewish Poles in 1989 and 1990 to dream of reviving the Jewish musical tradition in Poland.

    Today there are more than two dozen Polish (non-Jewish) klezmer bands and several Polish (non-Jewish) groups that play and sing both Yiddish and Hebrew songs. In Poland today there are almost a dozen Orthodox congregations, as well as half a dozen Liberal Reform congregations, three with Rabbis, two in Warsaw and one in Krakow.

    Thousands of Jews who had been physically hidden during the World War Nazi mass murder of Jews, and who had remained spiritually hidden during the subsequent 44 years of Communist suppression of Jewish life, were able to revive their [or their children’s] long dead Jewish identity because they saw that there were Poles like Janusz Makuch who were inspired by Pope John Paul’s outreach to Jews.

    Makuch, the non-Jewish director of the Jewish Culture festival in Krakow, now in its 24th year tells of his own deep need to find out more about the history of his own country – to explore a history that includes a thousand year era when Poland was the epicentre of the Jewish diaspora.

    The partnership of a Polish Pope and a Jewish conductor, stimulated a musical interaction of Poles with Jewish souls who engage with Jewish music for Polish souls.