Despite certain apprehensions that I had at first, the Jew that I am can only admire Pope John Paul II. I admire him for continuing the vision and the actions of Pope John XXIII. If John opened the windows of the church, then John Paul opened its doors. Thanks to both of them, Judeo-Christian relations have never been so good nor so fruitful. There have been ecumenical conferences, dialogue between rabbis and priests, and common initiatives taken against racism and anti-Semitism. For that, we are indebted to both of these great spiritual leaders. We can also thank John Paul for taking steps that led toward the historic collapse of communism in Poland and everywhere else behind the Iron Curtain. His belief in God did not diminish his sense of duty toward the worldly well-being of God's creatures. In other words, without the Pope, without his political interventions, the 20th century could have ended differently. That is a measure of his influence on today's world.
At the beginning of his papacy, I admit, I had my doubts. Shortly after becoming Pope, John Paul decided to visit Auschwitz. It was a gesture certain to touch many survivors. But during that solemn occasion, he decided to conduct a Mass for the dead amid still-constant reminders of the victims' tragic fate. The great majority if not the near totality of those killed were Jews from all over occupied Europe. The Pope prayed with genuine grief for the Christians. But why didn't he invite a rabbi and nine Jews to have a minyan to recite the Kaddish for these Jews without a grave, who had been assassinated and burned and whose cemetery lies in the clouds? Did he not take into consideration that, right at the spot where the ceremony was taking place, many extremely religious Jews had been gassed to death? It was an opportunity missed to make an extraordinary and sensitive gesture that would have spoken of truth and justice. I also found fault with his warm rapport with Kurt Waldheim, whose past, to say the least, was quite troubling. Then there was his strong support for Palestinians without recognizing that Jews in Israel live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.
Nevertheless, with the passing years and remarkable courage, the Pope has pointed out the path to reconciliation with other religions, but above all with the oldest, to which Christianity owes so much. He recognized the state of Israel, visited Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall, spoke from his heart at the museum of Yad Vashem, delivered an address at a synagogue in Rome. He presided over a ceremony at the Vatican commemorating the Holocaust and gave audiences to many Jewish delegations from all over the world. At one point, the Vatican initiated plans for a private meeting between myself and the Pope, at which we planned to have a long and candid discussion. I prepared for it as though it were a philosophical debate like those held in the Middle Ages. To my great regret, the press got hold of the news. Fearing that the event would turn into a media circus, I preferred to stay away.
Is John Paul too dogmatic in his approach to religion? I ask as one who is opposed to anything that comes close to fanaticismand yet, in the end, the question is one for Catholics, not for me. Should he not take social issues into consideration when seeking to ban birth control, as many argue? Is he too anxious to sanctify Pius XII? These too are matters not for a Jew such as myself but for Catholics who remember the past. If they want to follow the example of Pius, whose silences worried a generation of believers, that is their choice.
But finally, I wonder how John Paul feels about tens of millions of Americans going to movie theaters to see a film that, in effect, preaches the denunciation of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate, the 1965 encyclical that condemned anti-Semitism. Is he comforted by the fact that for many Jews, he, along with John XXIII, will always remain one of the two great Popes of all time?
Wiesel is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and human-rights activist
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