John Paul II on Judaism

John Paul II on Judaism
Visit to the synagogue in Rome 1986

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope discusses various religions, leaving for last. He said if we imagine other religions as concentric circles, Judaism is the inner most circle because it is “the religion that is closest to our own-that of the people of God of the Old Testament.”

The question of Judaism and Christianity is fraught with great political, historical and theological tensions and subtleties. Even his famous phrase that the Jews are in a certain way an “elder brother” is a subtle statement. It is a statement of affection and admiration; but one may puzzle over just how or in what way this older and younger brother have different things to share with each other. It is Biblical to understand that the younger may in fact bear the greater gift.

John Paul II draws upon two sure points of reference — Vatican II and his rich personal experience. Vatican II, Nostra aetate, states: “the origins of the Church’s faith and election are already found in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets.” Here is an “older brother” motif since what the younger has, the elder has from a longer time. The venture of faith and the awareness of election or divine favor are modeled by the elder brother. In addition, the elder and younger share a common spiritual “patrimony.” Yes, a patrimony means the Father includes the brothers in his bequeathment. So we may not speak of a disinheritance.  Weigel, Witness to Hope (p. 485), tells us that John Paul II read this psalm (in Hebrew) to the synagogue in Rome:

O give thanks to the Lord for he is good
“His steadfast love endures forever!”
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Let those who fear the Lord say
“His steadfast love endures forever.”

And he said “The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain sense ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion.” He said to the Jews at the synagogue in Rome, “You are our dearly beloved brothers.” Nostra aetate spoke of a “mutual understanding and respect, which can be obtained above all through biblical study and fraternal discussion.”

And this teaching was also borne out in the personal life of Karol Wojtyla: “I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school. Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God. Despite their different languages, prayers in the church and in the synagogue were based to a considerable degree on the same texts.” We pray to same God; and “to a considerable degree” we pray with the same texts. Just think how important the psalms are to the prayer life of the Church (and to Christ himself). It is unthinkable for a Christian to live and pray without the psalms. Augustine had his friends read him the psalms as he lay dying in Hippo (as did Gen Stonewall Jackson as he lay dying near Chancellorsville, requesting that Psalm 51 be read). Elder brothers in faith prayed these songs for centuries; Joseph and Mary were sustained by this patrimony of faith and prayer. We share it; we hold it in common.

John Paul also recalls his horror in the experience of World War II and the extermination of the Jews in Poland and throughout Europe. Racial hatred and greed for power are a deep corruption of political society. Anti-semitism is a sin against humanity.  Lovers of mankind must always stand vigilant.

John Paul II plunges to a deeper level, not content to remain on the level of politics alone. He sees the suffering of the Jews, our elder brothers, as a sign of their election. “Israel has truly paid a high price for its ‘election.’ Perhaps because of this, Israel has become more similar to the Son of man, who, according to the flesh, was also a son of Israel.” John Paul II follows the lead of Jacques Maritain who pleaded for Christian respect for the Jews from the 1930s through the 1960s.

John Paul II even says “two great moments of divine election-the Old and the New Covenants-are drawing closer together.” Christians cannot but see that “the New Covenant has its roots in the Old.” But it is not obvious that those of Old will recognize the New:  “The time when the people of the Old Covenant will be able to see themselves as part of the New is, naturally, a question to be left to the Holy Spirit.”

So John Paul II acts by this principle: “We, as human beings, try only not to put obstacles in the way.” Thus he visited the synagogue; reached out in friendship;  and established diplomatic relations between the Apostolic See and Israel.

And he proclaims a faith in Christ, and this faith accepts a “New Covenant” which “serves to fulfill all that is rooted in the vocation of Abraham, in God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai, and in the whole rich heritage of the inspired Prophets who, hundreds of years before that fulfillment, pointed in the Sacred Scriptures to the One whom God would send in the ‘fullness of time’ (cf. Gal 4:4).”

John Paul II was eager to endorse the work of the Vatican entitled “Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism.” (See this ) He said the document would “help promote respect, appreciation, and indeed love for one and the other, as they are both in the unfathomable design of God, who does not ‘reject his people’ (Psalm 94.4, Romans 11.1) By the same token, anti-Semitism in its ugly and sometimes violent manifestation should be completely eradicated. Better still a positive view of each of our religions, with due respect for the identity of each will surely emerge.” (Weigel, pp. 492-493).

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