In a recent historic mass at the Vatican, attended by cardinals, a thousand bishops, kings, queens, some 25 heads of state, and close to a million spectators, who overflowed the grounds of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, pouring into the streets of Rome, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II (already widely referred to as John Paul the Great) were declared to be saints. All Christians may direct their prayers to them, and those faithful may petition them for heavenly intercession with God.
The papal mass of canonization not only was an important day in the life of the church, it was a fascinating moment in Jewish history as well. There have been some 265 popes, according to the Catholic church’s reckoning, starting with Saint Peter. Of those 265 priests at the pinnacle of the church, the three popes widely recognized to have had the most positive relationships, the closest, most loving and most lovingly reciprocated ties to the Jewish people, were at the heart of this week’s ceremony. They were Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul the Great and their successor to the throne of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, who presided over their elevation to sainthood.
I have long been an admirer of John Paul II, whose picture hangs in my rabbinic study. We properly recall his close and abiding youthful friendships with Jews and his resistance to the Nazi regime during his early days in Poland. We remember the unprecedented ties established between the church and the State of Israel during his reign. We remember his visit to the Jewish state and to the Kotel, where he inserted his personal prayers in the cracks of the Wall sensitively and thoughtfully, in keeping with Jewish tradition.
We also recall that John Paul the Great was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Rome, where in April 1986 he made his famous statement of amity with the Jewish people:
“With Judaism … we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion,” he said. “You are dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
In a New Year’s Eve homily the same year, the pope recalled that historic moment:
“There is one … event that transcends the limits of the year, since it is measured in centuries and millennia in the history of this city and of this church. I thank Divine Providence that I was able to visit our ‘elder brothers’ in the faith of Abraham in their Roman Synagogue! Blessed be the God of our Fathers! The God of Peace!”
Saint John XXIII is remembered primarily as the pontiff who convened and presided over the Second Vatican Council, credited with making significant strides in the modernization of the Roman Catholic Church. He was elected pope at an advanced age and his was expected to be a short caretaker reign, with little substantive activity or change. He defied expectations and misconceptions of old age to revolutionize the church. Some say his canonization was a signal from Pope Francis of his openness to revolutionary measures in his own religious leadership. (A cherished friend and Roman Catholic priest demurs: “I doubt the timing was purposeful; perhaps it is just another example of the Almighty staying anonymous while working behind the scenes.”)
Let us recall, too, some of the many steps Saint John XXIII took in his relationship with the Jewish people. On Good Friday 1960, he halted the mass when a traditional liturgical statement against the “perfidious Jews” was included, and he ordered that the prayer be repeated without the offensive term, ordering further that the phrase be expunged from the liturgy.
It was under John XXIII that the church officially rejected the charge of Jewish deicide.
It was Saint John XXIII – formerly Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli – who welcomed a Jewish delegation to the Vatican by reciting the verse from the Torah: “I am Joseph your brother.” (Guiseppe is the Italian version of Joseph.)
While still a papal nuncio – a Vatican ambassador – the future saint met with Isaac Ha-Levy Herzog – a future chief rabbi of Israel – and subsequently intervened to save Jews during the Holocaust period. Whether he did so in behalf and at the behest of the Vatican or despite its policies still is a matter of bitter historic debate. What is well established is that he did indeed defy Vatican orders by returning Jewish war orphans who had been baptized to the Jewish community.
As papal nuncio in Greece and Turkey, the future pope and saint aided the Jewish underground in its resistance against Nazi Germany. He was nominated to be recognized as among the Righteous of the Nations – an honor bestowed by Yad Vashem to those who saved Jews from the Holocaust – by the chief rabbi of Buenos Aires. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is the very city in which Pope Francis would serve as cardinal before his election.
In Buenos Aires, Francis had close ties with the Jewish community and co-authored a book with a leading rabbi, whom I have met briefly. Rabbi Avraham Skorka visited the Vatican on Sukkot this year, and he had holiday meals with the pope and leading cardinals, whom he led in Birkat ha-Mazon, the Grace after Meals. Surely that is another historic first.
The idea of saints to whom the faithful may pray is foreign to Jewish thinking, But the idea that certain remarkable people attain heroic, all-but-unparalleled levels of holiness in their lives, and serve as inspirations and exemplars of devotion to God, motivating us more faithfully to pursue lives of service to the Almighty? That is a very Jewish idea. The fact that these two new saints were priests and popes in the Roman Catholic church does not preclude sensitive practitioners of Judaism from learning from their spiritual example.
Let us recall that before endogamy was a Jewish spiritual mandate, the biblical Joseph, who saved the Jewish people from destruction by bringing them to Egypt, married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Let us recall that Moses, God’s chosen, intimate prophet, who saved the Jewish people by leading us out of Egypt and into God’s covenantal service, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, whose counsel Moses followed – that counsel is recorded in the Torah itself.
Today, we Jews properly thank Divine Providence for two remarkable priests, these newest of saints. Just as they have been declared to reflect holiness in extraordinary measure, so may we have the wisdom to be moved by their examples to embrace that which is sacred. May we have the strength more faithfully to enter into God’s service, and may we be granted the ability to recognize and to emulate the Holy, even in the most unlikely of place. “Man cannot be good,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “unless he strives to be holy.”
May the memories of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul the Great be a blessing to all, just as their lives brought very special blessings to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.