As part of its observance of the centenary of the birth of Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, the Polish Catholic News Agency, KAI, included the following essay by Rabbi Skorka. This is the English original text from which the published Polish translation was taken, with slight editing.
May 18, 2020 | 03:00 Waldemar Piasecki (KAI New York) Philadelphia
On the occasion today of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karol Wojtyla, who entered history as Pope John Paul II, and after his death was placed on the altars of the Church as a saint, we publish here a statement given to the KAI [Catholic News Agency] by a close friend of Pope Francis, Rabbi Professor Abraham Skorka. He is a prominent theologian of Judaism and spokesperson for the dialogue between Christians and Jews, and today is part of the leadership team of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of the renowned Jesuit university of St. Joseph in Philadelphia.
Perhaps it was the will of divine Providence that a son of Poland, Karol Wojtyla, would devote much of his long pontificate as John Paul II to building a new relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
Within months of his election, he declared “that we recognize with utmost clarity that the path along which we should proceed with the Jewish religious community is one of fraternal dialogue and fruitful collaboration” (12 March 1979).
It was the first pope from Poland who became the first pope to visit a synagogue, where he spoke of Jews as the Church’s beloved elder brothers (13 April 1986)—perhaps thinking of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was always with the Father (Luke 15:31).
He was the first pope to visit both Auschwitz (7 June 1979) and Yad Vashem, where he gave “homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust” (23 March 2000).
He was the first pope to speak of Jews as “the present-day people of the Covenant concluded with Moses” (17 November 1980) and it was he who led the way to formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel (30 December 1993).
Finally, it was the first pope from Poland who prayed at both Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (12 and 26 March 2000) for God’s forgiveness for the suffering Christians had caused Jews over the centuries and who committed the Catholic Church “to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
Karol Wojtyla’s remarkable legacy might appear quite surprising if we recall that large numbers of Jews left Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries in the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century because of widespread hunger and antisemitism. Numerous pogroms—mass violence against Jews often incited by state officials to distract the population from their own misery because of government corruption—combined with continuous social oppression and discrimination, forced many Jews to seek a better future in other lands. Those Jews who remained in Poland saw the soil of their beloved country defiled by the mammoth factories of deaths erected by the Nazis, whose names still haunt the world today: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Maidanek, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, and others.
Karol Wojtyla, who was an eyewitness to the extermination of one of the largest and most creative Jewish communities in history, who lost all but one of his boyhood Jewish friends to the genocide, and who himself knew hatred and contempt at the hands of the occupiers of his country, acted on these memories upon becoming pope. Beyond any doubt, his deeds were of supreme importance and undoubtedly were benchmarks for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations. It is no exaggeration to say that he defined the contours of the new relationship between Jews and Catholic that was made possible by the Second Vatican Council’s historic declaration Nostra Aetate.
The Shoah posed heartrending questions for people of faith, not least how a loving God could permit such horror to exist. John Paul II, with his preaching and his work, grappled with such questions. Like Job, despite the enormous conflagration of the Second World War, he never stopped reaching out to God. Recalling the ancient prophets of Israel, he did not keep his understanding of God’s will to himself (e.g., Amos 3:8; Jeremiah 20:9). He always sought to forge a different path in history: the one that leads towards a reality in which “people do not raise swords against one another, nor train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
Although there were moments of controversy and tension between Catholics and Jews during his papacy, such as when on July 6, 1994 he bestowed on Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and former President of Austria, a papal knighthood despite Waldheim’s documented Nazi past. Nonetheless, John Paul’s contributions to a relationship of dialogue between Jews and Catholics were far more consequential and long-lasting.
Pope John Paul II has left us the challenge of continuing to build on the foundations that he, with courage and bravery, was able to lay. We must continue on his road of dialogue between peoples, nations, and religions in the coming years, a road that leads to a human family in which each person recognizes a brother or a sister in his neighbor and in which God is present in each and every action.
At the end of that road is the world that the Bible proposes to each individual and to all humanity: a reality sustained by justice, goodness, and mercy reigning among all people. As we travel that road together, we will be fortified by the memory of all those who, like John Paul, did their utmost to reconcile people.
Those who lead the many to righteousness shine like the stars in the firmament (Daniel 12:3).
“The memory of the righteous will be eternal” (Psalm 112:6).