Here are two especially moving tributes to John Paul II, whose beatification ceremony Elizabeth is now winging her way to attend. The first comes from Dr. Michael Berenbaum of A Jewish Journal:
Enter Pope John Paul II who as a young man in Poland witnessed the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Polish cities, which were once the home of large and thriving Jewish communities, were bereft of Jews and the Pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. As a young university student, and when he worked in the theater Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends. Some remained his friends throughout his long and distinguished life. As a recently ordained young priest, he was asked to baptize children born of Jewish parents who had been raised by Polish Catholics, who had sheltered them during the Shoah, thereby saving their lives. When their Jewish parents did not return after the war, the Polish family that had raised them lived them as their own children and wanted to raise them in their faith. On these occasions, the future Pope insisted that Jewish children first be informed of their Jewish origins and only then could they be baptized. It was an act of courage – political, religious and pastoral in post-war Poland, a deed of profound respect for memory. It was not an act popular with his congregants who were unable to tell young Jewish children of their origins during the war for such information could be lethal of both the child and his adoptive family, and who were reluctant to do so after the war for fear of reprisal from the local population and for complicating their relationship.
As Pope John Paul II, he recognized the State of Israel. He visited a synagogue for prayer and treated the Rabbi and the Congregation of Rome with every religious courtesy. Instead of dividing the world between Christians and Jews, he spoke of the commonality of religious traditions/ He spoke with reverence of the Torah. He spoke out against antisemitism again and again. He visited the sites of Jewish death and acknowledged on numerous occasions the centrality of the Shoah.
His visit to Poland in 1979 was perhaps the moment for which he was elected Pope. He delegitimated Communism in Poland and played a pivotal role in its demise. And Communism was the strongest enemy of Jewish nationalism and of Judaism.
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel – the State and not just the Holy Land. From the moment he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian antisemitism but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said – he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians not of Christianity—his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the Third Millennia, The Pontiff was determined that Roman Catholics act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends. He took all-important steps to make certain that the full authority of the papacy was brought to bear against antisemitism. His theology was quite simple: antisemitism is a sin against God. It is anti-Christian. These are welcome words to every Jew and one could sense their power by the manner in which the Israelis received Pope John Paul II. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, opposed by conviction to anything ecumenical and raised on the stories transmitted through the generations of confrontations between Priests and Rabbis, were deeply impressed by the Papal visit to the offices of the Israel’s Chief Rabbis.
Now, Berenbaum makes an inference I believe is false. He says that both John XXIII and John Paul II rejected supercessionism — the idea that Jesus represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. I’ve read Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II decree defining the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. It makes no statement incompatible with supercessionist theology. John Paul II did say that God’s covenant with the children of Abraham “has never been broken,” but his meaning was ambiguous, and he left it that way.
But Berenbaum’s onto something, I think. Where the Jewish people were concerned, both popes adopted a totally non-adversarial attitude. They treated Jews as fellow worshippers of YHVH, and their belief system as (to quote Nostra Aetate) “that well-watered olive tree onto which have been grafted those wild shoots, the gentles.” Their brand of supercessionism carried no threat, no hint of one-upmanship. Had they done otherwise — had they created a climate in any way demeaning to Judaism or the Jewish people — I couldn’t have dragged myself within a hundred miles of a baptismal font.
Here’s another opinion piece, written by Fr. Jim Martin, S.J. of America Magazine and The Colbert Report. His title, “A Liberal Liking of Pope John Paul II,” is wonderfully sporting. Who calls himself a liberal these days? Usually, it’s a label other people slap on you, and not with any charitable intent. After acknowledging that the former pope and his order, the Jesuits, got off to a rocky start, Martin concludes:
One Vatican official stated recently that Pope Benedict XVI is beatifying his predecessor for who he was as a person, not for what he did during his papacy. In short, he’s not being named a “blessed” for his decisions as pope. This makes sense. Beatification (and later, canonization) does not mean that everything he did as pope is now somehow beyond critique. (Any more than everything St. Thomas More did is beyond critique: Should we believe that heretics should be burned because More has been canonized?) On the other hand, that line of thinking is a little mystifying: for you cannot separate a person’s actions from his personal life.
But the emphasis on the personal life is an important one. The church beatifies a Christian, not an administrator. In that light, John Paul II clearly deserves to be a blessed and, later, a saint. Karol Wojtyla certainly led a life of “heroic sanctity,” as the traditional phrase has it; he was faithful to God in extreme situations (Nazism, Communism, consumerism); he was a tireless “evangelist,” that is, a promoter of the Gospel, even in the face of severe infirmity; and he worked ardently for the world’s poor, as Jesus asked his followers to do. The new blessed was prayerful, fearless and zealous. He was, in short, holy. And, in my eyes, anyone who visits the prison cell of his would-be assassin and forgives the man is a saint.
In my opinion, Martin’s the nicest good writer (or the best nice writer) since Francis de Sales. If you disagree, I don’t wanna hear about it.
One last thing. Critics like to accuse Benedict of beatifying his predecessor somewhat in the same spirit as that in which Ford pardoned Nixon. I would prefer to believe that’s wrong; Benedict has never been so ham-handed. Apart from a sincere belief in John Paul’s sanctity, the only motive I’d be willing to ascribe to him is an understanding of our hunger for some positive news. That’s been in very short supply this past year. Between the cranky editorials in the Times and the crankier rebuttals from the blogosphere, I haven’t been able to figure out which felt less like home — the Church or the World. With this beatification, finally, I feel fully, proudly, and — best of all — joyously Catholic.
We get our bread. We deserve our circuses, too.