Jewish and liberal paeans to a blessed pope

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.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I am stuck in a runway, delayed at least an hour and a half! Thanks for the good read!

  • Max Lindenman

    Delayed by an hour and a half? Holy smokes, I hope they’re serving drinks.

    Oh, didja check out that earleir thread, the one in which the guy addressed me as “Anchoress.” Seems I write well in drag.

  • Dan Tracy

    “And, in my eyes, anyone who visits the prison cell of his would-be assassin and forgives the man is a saint.”

    Amen…this remains a profound image for us…in this age of 3 (2.5?) wars in the Middle East, gang & drug violence, domestic violence, Wall St. greed, etc.

  • Jan

    4 posts in one afternoon? Do you ever rest? Come up for air?

    Good stuff, though.

  • Victor

    >>Oh, didja check out that earleir thread, the one in which the guy addressed me as “Anchoress.” Seems I write well in drag.<<

    Gee Max, Someone gives you a compliment by calling you "Anchoress" and this is how you take "IT"

    What's wrong with someone thinking that you might look better by dressing in drag, may I ask? :)


  • Max Lindenman

    Victor, man, I’m taking the compliment already! I love this blog; contributing to it makes me feel like Phaeton, driving Apollo’s chariot. (That, Jan, is why I overdid it so.)

  • Dan

    Yet what are we to make of the man who publicly kissed the koran, and thus validated the claims of those that still follow the example and teachings of mohammad?

    I can think of many things to do with a koran, ———– kissing it isn’t one of them.

  • Dan

    And that’s another thing about the late Pope, ———– how could a guy so steeped in Polish history, Polish culture, how could that guy bring himself to kiss a koran?

    The frenzied followers of mohammad were driven from Western Europe by Polish lancers, and but for Polish lancers arriving in the very nick of time, Vienna would surely have fallen. Tolkien took that miraculous event as the basis for his telling of the lifting of the siege of mythical Minas Tirith. The importance of that moment for Western history, and thus Christian history cannot be exaggerated.

    I have no idea what he was thinking. In fact, WAS he thinking at all?

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  • Maureen

    Re: Benedict — I think people totally misread Benedict XVI’s character in a very basic way. He’s not the guy to desecrate a ritual of the Church by sainting anybody he doesn’t think is holy. This is the very man who told JPII to his face that he was having too many canonizations and should slow down on declaring so many people saints — even though they were worthy and certainly in Heaven.

    So yeah, B16 is the guy to dig in his heels if all is not copacetic. And yet he was one of the people (before becoming pope) who quietly insisted that he was sure that JPII had gone directly to Heaven (do not pass GO, do not collect two hundred dollars). He even said so in his homily at the funeral. So this is not some kind of cold policy move. Sheesh. This is the guy at your office who hates brownies, quietly telling you to be sure to try the brownies over in the coffee cube. It carries conviction.

  • dymphna

    I think things will be different with the next pope. He’ll be too young to have any survivivor guilt about WWII.

  • Dan

    Are today’s Germans, the post ww2 Germans, any less guilt stricken?

    I don’t think so, in fact, it seems they’ve been taught, deliberately taught to be ashamed of their country.

    And what presently besets Germany besets all of Europe, for it as Ratzinger rightly remarked, Europe needs to love itself again.

    But who taught them that they were not lovable, that they should be ashamed of themselves, that when compared to tribal savages and animists, that they were always in the wrong, that the third worlder was sanctified simply by the fact that he was and was always likely to remain a third worlder.

  • Dan

    It’s all a sign of the times though…………

  • Geri Montefusco

    Did you know that Pope John Paul, Ordained Fr John Corapi ? In 1991. And until Pope John Paul died, they were good friends