Review of Eugene J. Fisher and Leon Kleinicki, eds., The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations: The Complete Texts 1979-2005

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2012

Review of Eugene J. Fisher and Leon Kleinicki, eds., The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations: The Complete Texts 1979-2005. A Publication of the Anti-Defamation League (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2011), 363 Pp., ISBN 0-8245-1544-7.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The striking changes in Christian-Jewish relations in recent years have been described as the most significant theological development of the past century. The abandonment of age-old Christian hostilities and prejudices and their replacement by a positive and productive dialogue between partners now marks the altered pattern of relationships. This unprecedented step has been most notably pursued by the Roman Catholic authorities, ever since the historic pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. This new stance became consolidated as part of Catholic teaching and practice particularly during the lengthy 26-year reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005). It is therefore a welcome step that we now have in English translation a complete edition of the texts of this Pope’s speeches and writings on the subject of Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel. (Previous but incomplete editions were issued in 1987 and 1995.)

As Eugene Fisher notes in his valuable introductory commentary, John Paul II’s views on these topics were conditioned by two seminal events of the mid-twentieth century: the Nazi mass murder of millions of Jews and the subsequent re-establishment of the State of Israel. The theological repercussions of these developments for all Christians became a constantly repeated theme of the Pope’s discourses. The re-creation of Israel in 1948 overthrew one of Christianity’s oldest slanders against the Jews, namely that they were destined to be a wandering people, exiled from their Promised Land, because of their rejection and execution of their Messiah, Jesus. The theological shock of seeing a new and vibrant Jewish state resulted in a radically altered and much more positive view which John Paul embraced throughout his reign. This was a tangible sign of the wider positive relationship with the whole Jewish people throughout the world, based on the recognition that Jews and Christians were spiritual partners. This new stance excluded all previously-held notions of Christian triumphalism, which had for so long regarded Judaism and the Old Testament as being superseded by the more enlightened Christian witness. Instead John Paul repeatedly stressed the common bonds with “our dearly beloved elder brothers”, as exemplified in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2000, his visit to the Jewish memorial at Yad Vashem, and his prayer at the Western Wall, which are here reported in full.

No less urgent was the Pope’s repeated emphasis on the need to examine and rectify the calamitous indifference displayed by the Christian community when the Nazis attacked and persecuted the Jewish people. Having himself witnessed these crimes in his native Poland, John Paul could not fail to be aware of the vocal criticisms about the earlier silence of the churches and their leaders, including his own predecessors. He was therefore wholly convinced of the heavy burden of Christian guilt and of the need for gestures of repentance and solidarity. Vatican loyalties here competed with a genuine desire to express remorse and to build a new relationship through discussion and dialogue. These affirmations were to be matched by recurrent pronouncements about the need for Catholics to combat every vestige of anti-Semitism and to oppose all forms of racial intolerance. In Pope John Paul’s view, the painful legacies of earlier centuries were to be replaced by a repeated stress on the common spiritual patrimony shared by Jews and Christians.

As the documents in this collection show, Pope John Paul II’s striking and continued commitment to the cause of reconciliation has meant that these teachings have now become the new orthodoxy. It is indeed inconceivable that any future Catholic leaders could disavow John Paul’s advocacy and tireless endeavours. He has thus earned the sobriquet “The Saint for Shalom”.

Nevertheless, as Fisher admits, controversies still remain. Many Jews still have their doubts about the genuineness of this new Christian attitude after so many centuries of hostility and the world-wide phenomenon of religiously-based anti-Semitism. Many still voice criticisms about the policies of the war-time Pope Pius XII. The convoluted politics of the Middle East and the Pope’s evident sympathy for the plight of Christian Palestinians still continue to muddy the waters of Christian-Jewish relations. Yet these documents provide the evidence for John Paul’s courage in being the first Pope to profess his admiration for the Jewish people’s valiant adherence to their faith, and to affirm energetically the common commitment of both Christians and Jews to pursue justice and peace in the world.