The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is hosting a major exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: John Paul II and the Jewish People,” through January 4, 2009. EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel gave the keynote address at the festive opening of the exhibit on the evening of September 10. His remarks follow.
On March 26, 2000, an eighty year old Polish priest, dressed in the traditional white cassock of the Bishop of Rome and leaning heavily on a cane, walking eighty-six slow and difficult steps to the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple. There, after a moment of silent reflection, he did something ghat millions of believers in the God of Abraham had done before him: he left a prayer, which read as follows:
“God of our forefathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant. Amen.”
Three days before, on March 23, 2000, that same Polish priest, John Paul II had gone to lay a memorial wreath at the eternal flame that honors the martyrs of the Shoah at Yad Vashem. His press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, once asked John Paul II if he ever cried. “Not outside,” the Pope replied. No one who saw the Pope walking toward that eternal flame could doubt that he was crying inside, as he spoke of the “great need for silence” in this place: silence in which to remember the dead, silence in which to try to make sense of the memories that kept flooding back, silence because there were no words sufficient to condemn the Shoah. Later that evening, my oldest Israeli friend, a distinguished soldier, scholar, and statesman who had seen a lot on his life, called me at my hotel. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that my wife and I cried throughout th Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing; nothing more needed to be said.”
How did this happen?
John Paul II would have been the first to insist that he was not acting in an idiosyncratic way when he went to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. There, as elsewhere in his remarkable twenty-six-and-a-half year pontificate, he saw himself as the heir of the Second Vatican Council and its teaching on the filial debt that Christianity owes its parent, Judaism. And it’s important to underscore this: for if John Paul II was acting idiosyncratically, then he was not bringing the full weight of the Catholic Church and its settled conviction to bear on what he said at Yad Vashem and what he prayed at the Western Wall. Still, as his biographer, I have to say that there was something intensely personal about the way he brought the conviction of he Catholic Church to bear at those two places so highly charged with symbolism, with emotion – and, Jews and Christians believe, highly charged with the truth of the world.
The first of those personal experiences involved his hometown and his father. Wadowice, where Karol Wojtyła was born and lived until he completed high school, was twenty- per cent Jewish in its population, and had a long history, nurtured by its Catholic pastors, of tolerance and mutual respect. Thus young Karol Wojtyła had many Jewish friends as a boy and a teenager — some of them remained his friends for life, while others perished in the Shoah.
He also had the example of his father, a man of granite-life integrity, a retired military officer, who taught his son respect for others, tolerance, and a belief in a free Poland in which minority communities played a full role in civic life while retaining their own cultural integrity. The son’s convictions, throughout a long life, mirrored the father’s.
The second personal element in John Paul II’s distinctive understanding of Jews and Judaism involved, of course, his own experience of the Second World War. This cauldron of hatred and violence was the most formative experience of his life; through that experience, he came to dedicate himself to the defense of human dignity and freedom through the priesthood of the Catholic Church. Some who shared that experience went mad; others gave their lives to the worldly utopia of communism; still others took up violent resistance, and often perished as a result. Karol Wojtyła, member of an underground cultural resistance group that fought Nazi tyranny by keeping alive the idea of a free, open, and tolerant Poland came through those five and a half searing years with a different commitment: a commitment to defend the dignity and value of every human life.
There are terrible forces at work beneath the crust of the Earth. They sometimes spew forth, violently, as lava, destroying everything in its path. But something else forms under that intense heat and pressure beneath the surface of things: diamonds, the hardest substance known in nature, gems that are both beautiful and capable of cutting through what seems impossible to penetrate. The years between 1939 and 1945 made Karol Wojtyła into a kind of diamond, whose cutting edge could break through the seemingly impermeable — like the Berlin Wall.
John Paul II’s approach to Jews and Judaism was also shaped by a distinctive conviction. Karol Wojtyła brought to the papacy a settled conviction that the world’s story and the biblical story are not stories running on parallel tracks. Rather, the biblical story — the story whose chapter headings in the Hebrew Bible are Creation, Fall, Promise, and Prophecy; the story Christians believe continues in the New Testament under chapters entitled, Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, and the Kingdom of God — is the world’s story, rightly understood: the story whose surface features are conventionally labeled Ancient Civilizations, Greece and Rome, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Age of Science, and so forth. The biblical story is the world’s story read in its deepest dimension and against its most ample horizon. The biblical story is, if you will, the story inside the conventional story of history, the depth story that gives the surface story its narratability and, ultimately, its coherence.
Let me put this another way: John Paul II believed that the human story is not the story of man’s search for God, but rather the story of God’s search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God takes. That is what the biblical story teaches. And that, John Paul II was convinced, is the story the world must learn anew (or, in some instances, for the first time), if the world is to recover a sense of its nobility and possibility. In that conviction, John Paul II became a pilgrim to the world: a biblical pilgrim, telling the world its true story — the story of Abraham, the story of Moses, the story of Jesus — so that, as he put it at the United Nations in 1995, “a century of tears might give birth to a new springtime of the human spirit.”
A final thought: John Paul II’s wish that Jews and Christians be a “blessing to one another” was not only focused on the pain of the past, but on the possibilities of the future.
For what, were we to be a blessing to one another? So that the world, in learning its true story, might recover its moral sanity. So that the peoples whose basic moral code comes from Sinai might be lights to the nations, witnesses to human dignity, and defenders of human freedom. So that, together, Jews and Christians might remind the world that history is His-story, God’s story, and that our human dignity is ennobled, not diminished, by our taking the same path through history taken by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.
At the Synagogue of Rome in 1986, John Paul Ii called Jews and Christians to “a collaboration in favor of man,” a collaboration in defense of human life and human dignity. May this exhibit more minds, hearts, and souls to advance that collaboration.
–George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.