Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, bid his own heartfelt farewell to Pope John Paul II a week ago in a talk here at an ADL dinner.
Eyes brimming, Foxman gave what he now thinks is the most important speech he ever delivered to his supporters. Foxman, a fellow Pole whose life was saved by his Catholic nanny, said this pope "revolutionized" relations between the Jewish and Catholic worlds.
In 26 years, "he repaired the history of pain, anguish and contempt of 2,000 years," Foxman said.
Foxman recounted events in the pope's life that are, unfortunately, better known to many Jews than they are to American Catholics, generally. Among them was John Paul's becoming the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue, one in Rome in 1986. The pope called Jews "our elder brothers." In 1994, he established diplomatic relations with Israel. He declared anti-Semitism a "sin against God and humanity."
Perhaps most important were his remarks while visiting a Holocaust memorial in Israel in 2000. There, John Paul voiced the "deep sadness of the Church for hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism against Jews by Christians." The next year, the pope visited Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine, site of the slaughter of 33,000 Jews by the Nazis in 1941.
Less well known was John Paul's admonition to German bishops visiting Rome in 1992 "to be committed to the protection of your Jewish fellow citizens." He told them to be mindful that the Second Vatican Council declared that Jews and Christians "have a special relationship," and that they "have a common spiritual heritage."
This pope declared the right of Jews to have their own homeland in 1984, and reiterated it in a speech before Jewish leaders in Miami. Foxman told his audience that the pope carried out a "courageous act" when he prayerfully placed a note of sadness over Christians' role in the Holocaust between the ancient stones of the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. "It was a first," Foxman said. "I don't think the whole church welcomed it, but they began to accept it because he did one thing after another to repair the past."
Foxman reflected on the pope's sensitivity to Jewish feelings. The pope arranged his visit to the Roman synagogue quietly, through friends in the Jewish community, rather than by letter so as not to embarrass the leaders if the time was not right.
In an interview, Foxman said that because of the intensive coverage of the pope's death and his funeral, "the world has begun to know of all the things the pope did that we knew of. We can't assume that this will continue. We hope it will. There is now a legitimacy and a license for the Catholic Church to continue with that legacy. He left a lot of legacies, but this is one of them: That you don't just issue a proclamation (of tolerance) as they did at Vatican II.
"You have to implement it. It will need both our communities to implement it. Because, look, we just released a 2002 poll showing 25 percent of Americans still believed Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus (a tradition repudiated by Pope John Paul II). This year it went up to 30 percent. So despite all these good things, one needs to bring the message down to the pews, to the parishes."
Indeed. Roots of bigotry run deep. In 1976, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was about to visit Buffalo with 17 other Polish prelates, I was asked to suggest some Buffalo personages who might be invited to greet the visitors.
I suggested Joseph Manch, recently retired superintendent of schools, who was Polish born.
"No," said one of the organizers. "He's a Jew."
How little they knew what was in the future pope's heart.