click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

A Rare Pope Indeed

A Rare Pope Indeed

Only three popes out of 266 have been brave enough to make significant changes in the Church’s relationship with the Jews.


From the perspective of the Jewish people, Pope Francis is a rare pope indeed. Since the Church of Saint Peter was established almost 2,000 years ago, there have only four popes out of 266 who have been brave enough to make significant changes in the relationship between the world’s oldest faith and one of its largest.

It would be a huge understatement to say that historically Catholic- Jewish relations haven’t been very good. It would probably be more accurate to say that the Church is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the horrendous anti-Semitism suffered by European Jewry during the past 2,000 years.

The roots of this tremendous animus go back to the very beginnings of the Church, and even earlier. For 2,000 years, from the time of Abraham until the birth of Christianity, Judaism existed as the world’s only monotheistic faith. The Jewish people’s unique beliefs and lifestyle set them apart from the pagan world and the great classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. The differences led to open hostility toward the Jews, and the Greek and Roman Empires, which both occupied ancient Israel, attempted at various times to eradicate Judaism.

Early Christianity began as a splinter sect of mainstream Judaism, most probably sometime in the early 1st century CE. During the second century, it continued to evolve and diverge from Judaism, eventually separating completely into a faith that attracted a large number of pagan converts. Despite numerous attempts by the Roman Empire to eradicate nascent Christianity, in the 4th century CE the Roman emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire.

This marked a great leap forward for the spread of monotheism, yet the traditional Roman animus toward Judaism took on a new theological undertone.

Toward the end of the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire (67-70 CE), the Roman legions burned the Temple in Jerusalem and leveled the city. Centuries later, the young Roman Catholic Church put a theological spin on the destruction. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, together with the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, was far more than mere Roman punishment for rebellion.

From the perspective of the Church, the Jews had rejected Jesus as the messiah and were instrumental in his death. As punishment for their sins, God rejected the Jews, destroyed their Temple and caused them to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus. It was divine retribution, the wrath of God.

These unpardonable sins were at the root of the tremendous hostility and suspicion towards Jews embedded in the collective consciousness of the church and actively spread by the early church fathers to the masses of Christendom.

Church-driven anti-Semitism led to open violence against Jews, especially at the time of the first Crusade, and the constant persecution, punitive taxation, humiliation, ghettoization, expulsions and mass murder.

While the Holocaust and Hitler’s attack against the Jews was not specifically theological, there is no doubt that he would not have been able to do to European Jewry what he did without building on 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time, the role of the wartime Pope Pius XII, and his apparent failure to confront the horrors of Nazism, remains a dark stain on the history of the Church.

Out of the ashes of Auschwitz, the State of Israel emerged, however it took decades for the church to take major steps toward re-evaluating its attitude to Judaism and the Jewish people.

Forgiveness: Finally in 1965 the first bold move came during the early tenure of Pope John XXIII when he eliminated the description of Jews as "perfidious" in the Good Friday liturgy. He also made a confession for the Church of the sin of anti-Semitism through the centuries. In addition Pope John convened Vatican II, an ecumenical council, which was closed by his successor, Pope Paul VI in 1965. Vatican II makes three very significant statements about the Jewish people: Only a few Jews were involved in the plot to kill Jesus, no Jew alive today can be held responsible for Jesus’s death, and the Jews are not rejected by God.

After two thousand years the church was finally able to forgive the Jews for something they never did in the first place.

The notion that the Jewish people’ covenant with God remains intact is truly a radical break with classic Catholic theology.

Acceptance: The next significant step came from Pope John Paul II in 2000. He established diplomatic relations with Israel, visited the country and even prayed at the Western Wall. If God had allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and re-unified Jerusalem maybe He hadn’t rejected them after all. This represented a huge shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism.

Reconciliation and legitimization: Pope Francis is proving to be quite a maverick. He eschews much of the formality and pomp of his office while working hard to rejuvenate the church and reconcile the church not only with modernity but also with other faiths.

Based on his past statements it could be argued that he will bring about the greatest shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism in 2,000 years. “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God was never revoked… With them we believe in one God who acts in history and with them we accept his revealed word.” Pope Francis, Evangelli Gaudium 2013

The notion that the Jewish people’ covenant with God remains intact is truly a radical break with classic Catholic theology.

This new perspective will hopefully lead to a significant re-evaluation and improvement of the relationship between the Catholicism and Judaism, Catholics and Jews and the Vatican and the State of Israel.

Published: May 24, 2014

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 60

(28) Zvi, October 30, 2014 7:45 PM

What has Francis done?

I disagree with the appraisal of Pope Francis... I have not seen a SINGLE truly "major" step. When he visited Israel, he had that "compassionate pause" by the graffiti about "Palestine". His visit (and comments) re Yad Vashem did not convey the same "feeling".
He did NOT comment about the decline of Christians in the territory controlled by the PA (as well as in other Arab countries). He did NOT comment about how it is ISRAEL that safeguards the rights of other religious groups.
He treated Abbas and Peres "equally" despite the overt incitement that Abbas has voiced. Need I go on?
I think that it is good to keep in mind Rav Soloveitchik's (ZT"L) statements regarding the Church. He noted that -- ulitmately -- the Church STILL wishes to convert the Jews. The Church has NEVER faced the horror of the "forced baptism" of Jewish children during WW-II and the then Pope's REFUSAL to assist in finding these children. And, the Church's attitude toward Jerusalem makes VERY clear their doctrinal feelings regarding the "inferiority" of the Jews.
When Francis makes a REAL step in these areas, I will pay some attention -- until then, articles like this serve no purpose -- except to "lick up" to Catholics....

LISA, December 16, 2014 9:45 PM


You are correct. I don't see any good coming from the pope towards any regilous group. They are and have been forever for their own agenda.

(27) Silvia Haia Antonucci, June 22, 2014 1:15 PM

Three "brave" Popes? Giovanni XIII, Paolo VI and Giovanni Paolo II

Shalom Rav,
forgive me if I do not agree with you.
If I have to think of 3 "brave" Popes who did "something" for the Jews, I think of:

- Giovanni XXIII who deleted the word "perfidus" from the prayer of the Holy Friday (1959), and he started the Concilio Vaticano II in 1962;

- Paolo VI who concluded the Concilio Vaticano II where was elaborated "Nostra Aetate" (where it is written that not all the Jews of every countries and centuries are responsible of the murder of Jesus);

- Giovanni Paolo II who recognized the State of Israel in 1993 and who was the first Pope to enter officially in a Synagogue, in Rome (1986).

I do not think that Pope Francesco I is "brave" towards the Jews, I think that he is very smart, he knows how to move in diplomacy and the Jews are not really his first thought.

I am sorry, English is not my first tongue, but I hope I made clear what I wanted to say.
Best Regards.
Silvia Haia Antonucci

Ariel, October 20, 2014 10:30 PM

1960, not 1959

Pope Giovanni XXIII deleted the word "perfidus" from the Good Friday prayer in 1960.

(26) Brian, May 28, 2014 6:49 AM

internet social etiquette

I just love how people test each other on the internet. People may disagree with this man and his article. But I grieve every time I see some one be overly kurt(on one end of the spectrum) to down right cruel and nasty; using more than colorful nomenclature. The fact that the Catholic formally make a public policy change from there usual doctrine...IS SIGNIFICANT ! It raises an eye say the least. It can hardly be held against him that he MADE...SOME observations as to why the Catholic church did a good thing by attempting reconciliation. Reconciliation is a process...NOT AN EVENT. Could it be that the man who wrote this article is making two points. 1 he acknowledges the suffering that the Catholic churches put the Jews through since the churches beginning. In addition, gestures of peace from Catholics to Jews have only happened 3 times in 2000 years. 2 this pope the three to take steps to correct fallacious policies against the Jews. And his emerging attitudes are worth taking notice. Because it appears he is interested in the process of reconciling the church to the Jews. In essence, I don't see the author doing anything but acknowledging the gesture of this Pope and at the same time say "We shall see". Is this sufficient cause to call the man ignorant? Hmmmm...I think not!!!

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment