Apr. 3, 2005 21:49  | Updated Apr. 4, 2005 6:15
What will follow the 'best pope the Jews ever had'?
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 abortion.

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 and relations."

That has as much to do with how far the church came under John Paul II as it does with where it is headed without him.

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 countries.

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."