Two Popes Who Changed the World for Jews

Holocaust Day Apt for John Paul II and John XXIII Sainthood

Message of Tolerance: Pope John Paul II, shown here at the Western Wall, is credited with dramatically improving relations between Catholics and Jews.
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Message of Tolerance: Pope John Paul II, shown here at the Western Wall, is credited with dramatically improving relations between Catholics and Jews.

By Ruth Gruber

Published April 25, 2014.
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(JTA) — Popes John Paul II and John XXIII are being declared saints of the Roman Catholic church on April 27, which is also the eve of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It’s a coincidence but a notable one.

These two post-Holocaust pontiffs revolutionized relations between Catholics and Jews, fostering interfaith dialogue and embedding respect for Jews and Judaism in official Catholic dogma.

“These two popes transformed not just the church, but made a bigger impact on the outside world — and on us,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and longtime participant in Jewish-Catholic dialogue. “As a Jew, my life, and the safety and security of Jews, have been improved by the actions of these two individuals.”

Pope Francis, who took office little more than a year ago, will preside over the solemn ceremony at the Vatican, taking place on the day Catholics celebrate as the Second Sunday of Easter. It was Francis who decided to canonize the two former popes in an unprecedented joint ceremony.

Rome is bracing for millions of the faithful to converge on the Eternal City for the event, which will also be attended by representatives of the Jewish community including Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni; the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi David Rosen; and Francis’ personal friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina.

John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 until his death in 1963, initiated policies that changed nearly 2,000 years of church teaching.

First, he canceled the words “perfidious Jews” from Good Friday prayers. Then, to reform and update the church, he convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. This Council in 1965 issued the Nostra Aetate declaration, a landmark document of less than 1,600 words that called for Jewish-Catholic dialogue and rejected the ancient Christian stigma against Jews as killers of Jesus.

More than two decades earlier during World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future pope had worked actively to save Jews, using his position as papal nuncio in Turkey to draw up false papers for Jewish refugees.

“Jews will always remember Pope John XXIII as the animating force behind the Vatican II Council that changed the way Catholics looked at other faiths, especially Judaism. The Nostra Aetate document that ensued from it pulled the plug on centuries of theological anti-Semitism and put relationships between Christians and Jews on a new footing of mutual respect”, observed Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Wiesenthal Center’s Director of Interfaith Affairs.


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