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Posted October 9, 2003

Pope's legacy of curbing anti-Semitism

By James Carroll, writing for the Boston Globe

He lost his mother at an early age. With his father, he lived on the second floor of a small house. On the first floor of that house lived its owners, who were Jews. Although he was a Polish Catholic, his Jewish neighbors were like his extended family. After the German occupation of Poland, he was conscripted to work in a Nazi slave labor camp. In order to study for the Catholic priesthood, he became a fugitive; if the Nazis had found him, he'd have been executed. He made his way from his native Krakow to Rome, where he spent the rest of the war. When he returned to Poland, a priest, he found that his Jewish friends were gone, simply gone. The discovery of what had happened at a death camp a few miles from his home marked him for life and would eventually make him, perhaps despite himself, a revolutionary figure in the Catholic Church.

John Paul II is known as a conservative pope. On matters of sexual morality, the rights of women, the prerogatives of an all-male, celibate priesthood, religious pluralism, and the dictatorial authority of the hierarchy, he has been reactionary. He attempted to stop most reforms begun by Vatican II. He condemned condoms even to slow the spread of AIDS. He protected a clerical system that preferred church power over the welfare of children.

In resisting Stalinist communism, ultimately helping to defeat it, he defined Catholicism more as a source of opposition than affirmation. Catholics who had moved on from his narrow, 19th-century view of the church were deemed disloyal. Christians of other denominations and adherents of other faiths were branded as religiously inferior. Pope John Paul II, a fierce traditionalist, spent himself opposing theological change.

Yet this pope has personally set in motion the single most significant change in the history of the church -- in its relations with the Jewish people. Following on the initiative of John XXIII, Karol Wotyla, as a young bishop at the Vatican Council, helped push through the momentous declaration Nostra Aetate, renouncing the Christ-killer myth, source of anti-Semitism. Against nearly 2,000 years of Christian contempt, that declaration affirmed the permanence of God's covenant with the Jewish people.

Elected to the chair of Peter, the Polish pope brought a raw experience of the Shoah into the center of his pontificate. He formally recognized the state of Israel, reversing an ancient Christian rejection of the right of Jews to be at home in the Jewish homeland. He befriended Jews, visited synagogues, moved past civility to authentic dialogue, and sponsored a broad reckoning with the Holocaust. Within the church he implemented new guidelines for preaching and teaching designed to eliminate any hint of anti-Semitism.

At the millennium he insisted on the church's own self-criticism, and he made the momentous apology -- a pope apologizing! -- for the sin of anti-Semitism. The climax of this impulse came with his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with his visit to Yad Vashem -- "It makes us cry out!" he said. Against the advice of his closest Vatican associates, the pope thus made visible the connection between the Holocaust and Christian history.

And then the most historic event of all: After haltingly making his way across that vast plaza in Jerusalem, John Paul II drew close to the Western Wall and revered it. He placed into its stone crevice a piece of paper with the words of his apology. He prayed as a Jew would, without invoking Jesus. More than a holy place, the wall is the last remnant of the temple. Since New Testament times, believing that Jesus is the "New Temple" and that the destruction of the old temple is a proof of Christian claims, Christians had been denigrating the Temple of Israel. In the climax of his pontificate -- of his life -- John Paul II reversed that ancient tradition. Seeing him at the wall, Jews instinctively grasped the significance of the moment. Christians will be understanding what was done that day for years to come. His affirmation of Jewish faith as an ongoing revelation of God mitigates the triumphalist claims of Christian theology, preparing for a far more ecumenical church not only in relation to Jews but toward all.

Inconsistencies remain. Pius XII, the "silent" pope, may yet be canonized. Vatican apologies for the "sins of members" still protect "the church as such," which claims to be sinless. Anti-Jewish religious condescension -- "old" versus "new," God of vengeance versus God of love -- still inhibits the Christian imagination.

Gospel texts continue to be read as demonizing Jews. Much more change must come. Yet because of what John Paul II has begun, there is reason to expect it will. The conservative pope has done more to heal the church's oldest wound, its gravest sin, than any man in history.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.