Pope John Paul II: A Jewish Perspective on a Polish Catholic Saint

Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Pope John Paul II: A Jewish Perspective on a Polish Catholic Saint


As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world... This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.

John Paul II, April 6, 1993 (1)

No other pope in history has done as much for interreligious relations between Jews and Christians to make this statement a reality. I was not surprised, then, when I read that Joseph Ehrenkranz, the Orthodox rabbi who is director for the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, called John Paul II a "chasid," a "tzaddik" ("saint") and "my rebbe." (2) As a child survivor of the Holocaust, I am deeply honored to write an essay to celebrate the sainthood of John Paul II, the most influential spiritual leader of our time--and to do so from a Jewish perspective.

I am well aware that some Jews do not believe in saints. (3) When Jews think about saints, they think of the process of beatification and canonization by which the Catholic Church declares a person to be a saint. In Judaism, there is no official religious body that can recognize someone as a saint, but there are saints in the Jewish tradition. When a person lives a holy, pious life, the Jewish community may come to recognize that human being as a saint, but how does Judaism define a saint? I would define a saint as a person who views Imitaio Dei as the ultimate purpose of life and who is totally committed to the following two commandments from the Hebrew Bible: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Dt. 6:4), and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lv. 19:17). The test of a holy life is the willingness to give up one's life for the sake of God. Saints are always ready to die for God. It is clear to me that, based on this definition of a saint, John Paul II certainly qualifies.

No other person has done more to heal the rift between Jews and Christians in the 2,000-year history of the church and the synagogue than Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow. This is an appropriate moment to celebrate the sainthood of John Paul II, as well as that of John XXIII, who said, "I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in" (4) and who called the Second Vatican Council, which issued the magnificent document, Nostra aetate. For me its most significant statement is the following:

   The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these
   religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct
   and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing
   in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless
   often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (Nostra
   aetate, no. 2) (5)

Then follows this extraordinary statement:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. (Nostra aetate, no. 2)

For the first time in 2,000 years the Church rejected the accusation that Jews were collectively to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. The document clearly states that "God holds the Jews most dear" (Nostra aetate, no. 4). It also deplores Antisemitism and affirms that Jesus Christ was born of a young Jewish girl of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary, and that most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ to the world were Jews.

No one has devoted more time and energy to making Nostra aetate a reality than did John Paul II. I agree with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz that "you could say that John Paul II's entire pontificate was a continual implementation of Vatican II. …

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