Forty years ago, during the papacy of Pope John XXIII, the Catholic Church determined that the attempt to present the Jewish people as rejected by God was false, and cleared the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus.
But it was Pope John Paul II who was the true hero of Christian-Jewish reconciliation. The late pontiff called for "a new and profound understanding between the Church and Judaism everywhere, in every country, for the benefit of all." He stated unequivocally that the idea that the Church has replaced the Jewish people in a covenant with God was wrong, and even questioned the attempt to proselytize among Jews.
The two most significant events in terms of Christian-Jewish reconciliation were his visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986 and his visit to Israel in 2000. The scene of John Paul embracing the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, reached millions of believers who did not choose to or who could not read his writings. He described the visit to the synagogue as the most important event of that year, one that would be remembered for "hundreds of thousands of years" and gave "thanks and praise to Providence" for the occasion.
Full diplomatic relations were inaugurated between the Vatican and Israel in 1993, and then the Pope made an official visit to Israel in 2000, in a clear rejection of the traditional position of the Church that the Jews had been exiled from their land because of their refusal to accept Jesus and were condemned to wander. The visit had a powerful effect, primarily on the Jews of Israel. Most of them, especially traditional and Orthodox Jews, had never met a modern Christian. The common image of Christianity among them was negative, drawn from a tragic past.
The Pope's visit to Israel opened the eyes of Israelis to a new reality. Not only was the Church no longer an enemy, its head was a true friend! To see the Pope at Yad Vashem, demonstrating solidarity, weeping at the suffering of the Jewish people, to learn that he had helped save Jews during the Holocaust and that subsequently, as a priest, he had returned Jewish children adopted by Christians to their Jewish families, to see the head of the Catholic Church placing a prayer of atonement for the sins of Christians against Jews between the stones of the Western Wall - all of these scenes had a profound effect on many Israelis.
The widespread publicity given the Pope's visit to Israel had no less an important effect, and perhaps a more important one, on Christians, particularly on Catholics, in their relation to Jews, Judaism and Israel.
Tension resulting from some of the Pope's actions was undeniable. Some of those acts involved the behavior of the Church and the Holocaust, such as the canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and was murdered by the Nazis. A still rankling problem is that Pope Pius IX is remembered for his support of the abduction of the Jewish boy Edgardo Mortara in 1858. However, I am convinced that none of John Paul's actions stemmed from insensitivity - quite the contrary.
The canonization of Pius XII, accused of inaction during the Holocaust, has been delayed to this day, and that apparently is a sign of the sensitivity of the Church and particularly of the late pontiff to the Jews.
I believe this issue will remain a source of tension between the Church and the Jews, even if the Vatican releases additional documents, given the subjectivity of historical memory and its interpretation.
Nevertheless, the contribution of Pope John Paul II to the new spirit in Vatican-Jewish relations was unprecedented. In a speech to the American-Jewish Committee in 1985, John Paul said, "I am convinced, and I am happy to state it on this occasion, that the relationships between Jews and Christians have radically improved in these years. Where there was ignorance and therefore prejudice and stereotypes, there is now growing mutual knowledge, appreciation and respect. There is, above all, love between us; that kind of love, I mean, which is for both of us a fundamental injunction of our religious traditions... Love involves understanding. It also involves frankness and the freedom to disagree in a brotherly way where there are reasons for it."
If such love does indeed exist today between Jews and Christians in general and Jews and Catholics in particular, we are grateful to Pope John Paul II for his great contribution in making this so.
Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, is director of the American Jewish Committee's Interreligious Affairs Department. He formerly served as the Anti-Defamation League's co-liaison to the Vatican.