|Beyond the achievements that are
likely never to be equaled and the controversies that are likely
never to be resolved lie concerns about the future of relations
between Jews and Catholics after Pope John Paul II's passing.
And each one is, like his papacy, monumental.
For most of the world, John Paul II will be
remembered as the second-longest serving successor to St. Peter
in history, the most traveled, the most seen. He will be
remembered for staring down Communism and for embracing people
of all faiths and colors. He will even be remembered (not
necessarily kindly) for his opposition to birth control and
But for Jews, the most salient elements of
John Paul II's work include reconciling the Roman Catholic
Church with its anti-Semitic past, memorializing the Holocaust
and recognizing Israel. He will be remembered, as some have said,
as "the best pope the Jews ever had."
"No pope has devoted himself as much to
advancing positive relations between the Christian world and the
Jewish people as this pope. He may indeed be described as a hero
of reconciliation," said Rabbi David Rosen, a member of the
Israeli Chief Rabbinate's delegation for interreligious dialogue
and the director of the American Jewish Committee's
Interreligious Affairs department.
Pope John Paul II's relationship with the
Jewish people went back to Wodowice, Poland, when the man then
known as Karol J zef Wojtyla lived in harmony with his Jewish
neighbors. His closest friend and boyhood neighbor, Jerzy Kluger,
a Jew, is known to have joined the pope at his table on numerous
occasions. And the pope was often noted nostalgically recalling
the Jewish prayers and religious observances of his neighbors.
Yet John Paul II's example in the church was
so revolutionary, and so peculiar to his own personal history,
that it would be nearly impossible to follow.
"It would be very naive for us,"
continued Rosen, who has spent 30 years in interfaith dialogue,
"to expect that this pope will be succeeded by someone who
will show the same commitment to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation
That has as much to do with how far the church
came under John Paul II as it does with where it is headed
The thorniest and most immediate problem for
Jewish-Catholic relations is the beatification of Pius XII,
which seems to be impending. As the pontiff during World War II,
Pius XII is the subject of a fierce debate over the Vatican's
knowledge of and role in the atrocities of the war. At stake is
the historical and theological depiction not just of a pope but
of the Holocaust itself, of its perpetrators and of its victims.
Jewish groups and critics of the Vatican brand
Pius XII "the silent pope" for failing to protest Nazi
crimes, at best, or even approving them, at worst. The church,
meanwhile, insists that Pius XII was a hero of the war, and has
tried to portray him either as unaware of the extent of
Germany's actions or as a determined opponent of them.
A week ago, after a long period of quiet, the
head of the church's Congregation of the Causes of Saints said
that Pius XII's beatification process was moving forward. Rosen,
who at that time went to Rome to petition the Vatican against
declaring Pius XII a saint, said that John Paul II had
throughout his career helped delay such a step. So the pope's
failing health, Rosen said, was likely a factor in the renewal
or acceleration of that process.
Hebrew University professor Robert Wistrich
was a member of the Jewish historical commission which
investigated Pius XII's role in the Holocaust, research that was
intended to defuse the tensions over the issue. Calling Pius
XII's wartime behavior "a shadow that hangs over relations
with the Jewish world," he said, "It is virtually
impossible for the Jewish community to simply ignore, or accept
as entirely an internal matter for the church," the
possibility that Pius XII would be beatified.
The issue is not only a "cause celebre
for conservatives within the church," as Wistrich said, but
may be a sign of things to come.
Those around John Paul II want to fashion his
legacy not in his work with Jews, Wistrich said, but in his
authoritarian approach to church matters. That could spell
danger when combined with the church's current problems.
"In many ways the church shows signs that
it could disintegrate under the strain of the challenges of the
21st century," he said. "In Europe, Catholicism has
been on the decline for decades. The number of candidates for
the priesthood declines from year to year. Sex scandals have
rocked the church. The only growth areas for the church are in
Latin America and Africa."
In light of this demographic change, some
commentators have already suggested that the next pope could be
black or Hispanic. A greater focus on the Muslim world is also
expected – not surprising, since John Paul II's overtures to
the Jewish people and the State of Israel were said to have been
tempered by fears for Christians and Vatican interests in Arab
While the "sea change" in Catholic-Jewish
relations would be impossible to reverse completely, Rosen and
Wistrich agreed, any direction the church takes now would be a
departure from that of John Paul II.
"It is highly unlikely," Wistrich
said, "that a shift to the Third World will mean greater
sensitivity toward Jews. The whole historical relationship
between Christians and Jews [in Europe] is lacking. It is
difficult, therefore, to imagine a successor being as
sympathetic [to the Jews] as John Paul II."