Pope John Paul's Visit to Israel

I followed eagerly the news of Pope John Paul II's historic five-day visit to Israel in 2000. While the visit seemed very positive, I heard some criticism from Jewish groups about the fact that the Pope did not apologize for the attitude of the Vatican during the Holocaust.

Is this related to the concept that one Pope should not directly chastise a former Pope? Extending this thought, would a future Pope, unhappy with the Vatican's recognition of Israel as a state, look back and condemn the current Pope?

It is important that Pope John Paul II has reached out in a number of impressive ways, e.g. the first Pope ever to visit a synagogue. What do you think?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The history of the Church toward the Jewish people is a very complex one. On one hand, Jews have suffered from Church-authorized Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and Blood Libels.

The current pope has definitely been more conciliatory – he helped draft the Vatican II which recognized that the Jews did not kill Jesus, and led the Vatican's diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1993.

Furthermore, there are stories of John Paul II's humanitarian efforts. One 14-year-old girl, after being liberated from a Nazi work camp in Poland, had walked as far as she could toward Krakow and then lay down, expecting to die of exhaustion. The priest who found her (Karol Wojtyla, the future pope) carried her on his back three kilometers to a train station. Another incident tells of Karol Wojtyla refusing to baptize Jewish children whose parents had been killed in the Holocaust.

But there are still lingering issues. While standing at the Israeli Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, the pope said nothing to apologize for the official Church policy of Pope Pius XII, who met with Hitler several times, and in 1933 agreed to disband a Catholic political party which enabled millions to join the Nazi Party and help Hitler come to power. Throughout the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII never once publicly mentioned the plight of the Jews. Not once.

All this is documented in "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," written by John Cornwell, a Roman Catholic journalist. Cornwell was given access to secret Church files because he had initially planned to defend the pope against charges he was silent about the death camps. But after studying Pope Pius XII's own files and depositions taken under oath 30 years ago to support his eventual canonization, Cornwall said he was in a "state of moral shock."

And then there is the issue of the 19th century Pope Pius IX, who kidnapped a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his parents' home in Bologna, carried him off to Rome and raised him as his own Catholic son. The New York Times carried no fewer than 20 editorials calling on the pope to hand the boy over to his family – but Pope Pius IX refused. In 2000, John Paul II announced the formal beatification of Pius IX.

So you see, in general, Jews have mixed feelings about the Pope.

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