Decades of Healing
In an extraordinary reversal of centuries of anti-Semitism and intolerance, the Catholic Church officially repudiated “hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” in the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration, Nostra Aetate, Latin for “in our time.”
In October, Jews and Catholics will celebrate the golden anniversary of the promulgation of that historic document on relations between the two venerable religions. The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions states in part:
As momentous as Nostra Aetate was in 1965 and is now, the story of evolving relations between Catholics and Jews began before 1965 and has continued through every papacy since then. It seems completely natural now to expect every new pope to visit the Holy Land and to celebrate the unique bond between the faiths. In an interview shortly after his own trip there in May 2014, for instance, Pope Francis declared: “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” Each day, Pope Francis said, he reads David’s Psalms and then celebrates Mass. “My prayer is Jewish, then I have the Eucharist, which is Christian.”
While some are aware of the latest steps in Jewish-Catholic relations, it is a chapter of history that cannot be repeated often enough for all. Moreover, there is another remarkable side to this story: the double canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II by Pope Francis in April 2014. In the case of Catholicism’s newest papal saints, we have heroes not only for Catholicism, but for Judaism, too.
Before he became Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli served as the Vatican’s representative in dangerous places and times: Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece from 1925 to 1944. Working behind the scenes, it is estimated that he saved up to 24,000 Jews from death by issuing immigration visas and arranging food, shelter, clothing, and money to move them to safety. It is believed he helped save Jews from Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.
“Poor children of Israel. Daily I hear their groans around me,” Archbishop Roncalli wrote after meeting Polish Jewish refugees in Istanbul in 1940, before adding words that were astounding for the time: “They are relatives and fellow-countrymen of Jesus.” There is even a legend that he forged or helped pass out phony baptismal certificates—a point repeated by none other than Pope Francis. The true extent of his aid may never be known because the paper trail that historians love to follow doesn’t exist when you’re operating in underground networks.
Once he became pope in 1958, John XXIII greeted rabbis in Rome by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother,” which recalled the biblical scene of reconciliation between Joseph and his family in Egypt. In the first Good Friday service after his election, he ensured that the phrase “perfidious Jews” was stricken from the traditional prayers during that liturgy. And he opened the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which produced Nostra Aetate. After World War II, the young priest Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, worked directly with Jews who survived the death camps. As a young bishop at Vatican II, he was clearly influenced by the new attitude toward Jews that flowed from John XXIII. As pope, John Paul made repairing relations with the Jews one of his top priorities.
In 1979, John Paul visited Auschwitz, where he made Christianity’s ties with Judaism clear: “The church of Christ discovers her bond with Judaism by searching into her own mystery. The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain way isintrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.” And then, picking up on John XXIII’s words to the rabbis, John Paul added, “You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
John Paul went further in Mainz in 1980, when he declared that the Lord’s covenant with the Jews was “never revoked by God” and therefore was not replaced by the covenant of Jesus—sometimes called the “old” and “new” covenants, respectively. With these words, John Paul was striking back at the so-called supersessionists who held that the Jewish covenant was only valid until Jesus when they said, the new Christian covenant fulfilled or even replaced (superseded) the old.
The media-savvy John Paul II knew that actions speak louder than words, so he visited Rome’s synagogue in 1986—the first pope ever to do so—where he repeated his respectful statement that Jews are elder brothers to Christians. He once more rejected