Like other outstanding spiritual and political leaders, Karol Wojtyla began his career as an actor.
Born with a talent for communication, an overpowering sensitivity and empathy for the human condition, steeped in a deeply religious Polish Catholic environment but surrounded by Jewish friends and classmates, he consequently embraced the moral imperative of transforming consciences according to his faith.
Indelibly branded spiritually by the Holocaust, by World War II and communist tyranny, he embraced his mission fervently as an opportunity to help heal the world. He might well go down in Jewish history as the Tikkun Olam Pope.
Run-of-the-mill priests can be identified by the quality of their voices. They have a holier-than-thou, desexed quality of resignation, devoid of of passions. Not so with Karol Wojtyla.
An episode stands out in the rush of film clips the Italian media have spliced together, making a statement on his unswerving and radical values that have never bent to circumstances. During a speech in the 1980s in Agrigento, a fiery pope spewed forth with the fury of a Biblical prophet against Mafia men who humiliate and destroy the love of life so characteristic of Sicilians. The energy of his words revealed his physical and mental stamina and the motivation that has enabled him to survive the wounds of a near-mortal attack and a series of operations and illnesses with total lucidity and determination.
This same energy was the source of his gentleness and tenderness in his endless personal encounters with the sick, the poor, the suffering and with youth.
A vision of human dignity and respect for the sanctity of life based on the biblical statement that humankind was created in the image of its creator made John Paul II not only a wielder of religious and political transformations, but also a man of dialogue with Judaism first, and secondly with other world religions. He willfully served as an enemy of all totalitarian ideologies and as a catalyst for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
A master of the use of symbolism, John Paul II systematically paved a path toward reversing a 2,000-year Christian tradition of theological anti-Judaism that was an underlying agent for European anti-Semitism.
During his first trip abroad, he visited Auschwitz. Stopping at the inscriptions listing the numbers of victims, he said, "No one can pass by here with indifference." While his theological positions have sometimes clashed with Jewish sensitivities (such as his reference to Auschwitz as a "Golgotha" of the Jews, implying that Jews were sacrificial victims of salvation rather than simply victims of evil), his intent of restoring full dignity to the Jewish people, religion and land, developed a steady crescendo throughout his papacy.
He furthered two soul-searching International Theological Colloquiums in the context of the Jubilee Year – one on "Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu" and another on "The Inquisitions." They provided the basis for the requests for pardon for "the errors of sons and daughters of the Church" commemorated at the Vatican just before John Paul II's trip to Israel in 2000. During his Pontificate, several important documents on relations with Jews have been promulgated by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.
It was his respect for Jewish sensitivity that led him in 1989 to intervene with a personal request to the Carmelite nuns in Auschwitz to transfer their convent out of the Nazi concentration camp. He himself had helped set up the foundation, The Church that Suffers, which helped finance the building of the convent, but when he understood the Jewish perception that the nuns' presence there, as well as a huge, neighboring cross, was "Christianizing" the memory of a genocide whose Jewish victims comprise approximately 90 percent of the total, he took the unprecedented measure.
John Paul II received streams of visits by countless Jewish delegations representing the world's major Jewish organizations, and he never failed to meet with local Jewish communities during his endless travels. No pope before him had ventured to bestow such significance on Catholic-Jewish relations.
His visit to the Rome Main Synagogue on April 13, 1986 – the first such visit in history – was carefully planned to give both religious authorities equal space, despite the clear imbalance of their numeric following. After the initial embrace, Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff sat in an armchair side-by-side with Pope John Paul II.
A half-year after the pope's visit to the synagogue, he called for the first Interreligious World Prayer Day for Peace in Assisi. Separate but simultaneous delegations – Christian denominations, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Zoroastrians, Native religions, the Jains – offered their prayers for peace. This was another landmark in a universal dialogue for peace undertaken by the Polish pope.
The visual impact of John Paul II's visit to Israel has become iconic. The slow steps of a bent, white-cloaked pope advancing toward the Western Wall, the trembling hand slipping a written prayer into a crack, requesting forgiveness for the responsibilities of the church for the suffering of the Jewish people (from which he had tactfully eliminated the sentence, "in the Name of Christ our Lord", pronounced earlier during the Jubilee Year Day for Pardon in the Vatican) and the filmed ceremony at Yad Vashem have all contributed to promoting a more positive image of Jews among Catholics.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that "anti-Semitism is a sin against God and against man." Quite a contrast to when "Nostra Aetate" timidly stated that the Church "deplores" anti-Semitism but "not for political reasons" in 1965 or even before that, when official Vatican media published openly disdainful and even anti-Semitic articles.
And during the same years, Karol Wojtyla in Poland moved against the anti-Judaic culture of Catholicism. A well-known episode is the story of how, at war's end, Priest Karol Wojtyla of Krakow advised a Polish Catholic woman who had hidden a Jewish child to seek survivors of his family rather than adopt him and convert him to Christianity. That happened during the same period that Pius XII issued orders in France to keep baptized, or even unbaptized, Jewish children saved in convents and monasteries from joining Jewish relatives or institutions.
John Paul II's efforts to establish respectful religious relations with Jews and to combat anti-Semitism have gone hand-in-hand with efforts to reach out to Israel.
His recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state have been consistent and balanced by his recognition of the rights of Palestinians to coexist in a state next to Israel.
While the Vatican's first mention of "the State" of Israel dates back to October 1977 in a letter from Paul VI to then president Ephraim Katzir requesting the release of Hilarion Capucci held in an Israeli prison for arms-smuggling, the term was not used again officially until John Paul II's 1984 Apostolic Letter Redemptionis Anno in which he invoked for the "State of Israel" "a desired security and just tranquillity for the Jewish people, who in that land preserve such precious witness of their history and their faith." Had it not been for the Vatican Secretariat of State's fears for Christian minorities in Arab countries, the pope would have likely agreed to diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican long before the signing of the Fundamental Agreement on December 30, 1993.
While Israel and the PLO were negotiating in Madrid, the Vatican opened talks for diplomatic ties with the PLO.
For the past few days, Jews all over the world have been thinking of the pope with warmth, and many have been praying for his recovery.
The Rome Jewish Community has lived across the Tiber from the Vatican for 2000 years. The morning after the sudden worsening of the pope's health, Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, led a delegation of Roman Jews to St. Peter's Square where they chanted psalms for the pope's recovery.
Later, during a press conference called at the synagogue just before Shabbat, Di Segni said "psalms belong to both of our traditions and are a very strong expression of prayer. Let's hope the pope's strong fiber will help him overcome even this crisis."
He spoke of the salient moments of this papacy in Catholic-Jewish relations and praised the pope for his commitment to "systematically promoting studies on Jewish-Catholic relations" and "creating a greatly improved atmosphere of dialogue, even if our theological positions retain their differences, albeit with mutual respect."
A precedent had been set on the eve of John XXIII's death, Di Segni recalled. At that time, Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff prayed at St. Peter's with three other Roman Jewish leaders. A more recent, international precedent took place last month during John Paul II's stay at the Gemelli Hospital. Approximately 30 rabbinical members of the World Union of Progressive Judaism led by Rabbis Mark Winer and Uri Regev gathered at the hospital's entrance to pray for him.
The silence of his absence will be very loud indeed.