The Gift That Keeps on Growing: Jewish-Catholic Relations and the John Paul II Generation

The nearly 27-year papacy of one of the most beloved figures of the past century was drawing to an end. Pope John Paul II was succumbing to Parkinson’s disease, injecting urgency into the mission of Jewish leaders in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, remembers trying to get that one last audience with John Paul II before the ailing pontiff – who had no less than “transformed” relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people – passed away.

Cooper had previously met the pope, including at the 1983 commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But this time, he and Wiesenthal Center founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier were on a quest to deliver a simple, heartfelt message.

At first, a Vatican official seemed to pan the request, stressing to Rabbi Cooper that the pope was very ill — which was exactly why the rabbis felt the trip was so urgent. “Well, we’d like to come to say ‘thank you,’” Cooper told me, recalling the exchange.

One meeting was canceled at the last minute because the pope was too sick to receive visitors. Then they got a second chance: a Vatican official called and said if they didn’t mind hopping on a plane on the Sabbath, they could potentially get a meeting first thing that Monday. Which could, of course, get canceled at the last minute depending on how the fading pontiff was feeling.

The rabbis gave it a shot and flew to Rome. It paid off: they got one last audience with His Holiness, and got to say “thanks.”

“It was an incredible experience,” Cooper said, “watching an incredible man defeat his physical difficulties for 45 minutes and his spirit emerge.”

Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, was on the Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See that negotiated the Fundamental Agreement in 1994 to establish full relations.

He met John Paul II on 13 occasions, and remembers the pontiff as the “most powerfully charismatic personality I’ve ever met.”

Building from the groundwork laid by Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II would lead the Church into what Rosen calls “one of the most miraculous transformations in human history.”

This October, Catholic and Jewish leaders marked the 50th anniversary of the document that put the two faiths on the path to reconciliation and understanding. Two months after the anniversary, the Vatican issued yet another landmark document stressing that Catholic and Jewish relations are more appropriately referred to as “intra-familial dialogue” and the Church “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” The studious assessment of God’s covenant with Israel and the roots of Christianity, drafted by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, espouses not just acceptance but swells with sincere affection for the Church’s Jewish brothers: “Judaism is not to be considered simply as another religion.”

In the decades since Nostra Aetate, Catholics have been raised in a Church that teaches nothing but respect for and harmony with its Jewish elder brothers. With the guidance that Saint John Paul II instilled in the generation that grew up under his lengthy papacy, Jewish-Catholic relations can move confidently forward into the next 50 years and far beyond – mindful of the challenges the world presents now, while never forgetting the past that led the first Polish pope to chart a groundbreaking course.

Roots of Understanding

In his hometown of Wadowice, Pope John Paul II grew up with the town’s Jews as his brothers – with one, in particular, close enough to be kin. Jerzy Kluger and Karol Wojtyla grew up at each other’s homes, got into childhood mischief and played sports together, with the future pontiff playing goalie on the town’s Jewish soccer team.

The Hidden Pope by Darcy O’Brien details the future pope’s first visit to a synagogue. When Karol and Jerzy were teenagers, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Poland. In 1937, Jerzy’s father, Wilhem, was aiming to “find common ground between the religions through music,” and invited several Catholics to synagogue to hear famous cantor Moishe Kussawiecki perform. Every Catholic on the invitation list accepted, including the future pontiff Karol and his father.

Pope John Paul II greets boyhood friend Jerzy Kluger during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on March 23, 2000. (AP Photo/Isaac Harari/GPO/ho)

Pope John Paul II greets boyhood friend Jerzy Kluger during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on March 23, 2000. (AP Photo/Isaac Harari/GPO/ho)

Jerzy and Karol sat together, and the Jewish teen remembered glancing over at his friend “who looked as if he were hearing an angel sing.” Afterward, Karol wanted to know everything possible about the meaning and origin of the beautiful songs.

The war was cruel to Jerzy. He and his father fought with the Polish army; the Kluger women were seized by the Nazis. Jerzy’s mother and sister died at Auschwitz, while his grandmother died at Belzec.

Kluger married an Englishwoman and had a family; they were the first audience received by the new pope in October 1978. Unsure of how to greet an old friend who had just become the Bishop of Rome, Jerzy started to bend his knee and bow his head when the pope grabbed his elbow and pulled him upright. “You must never bow your knee to me, Jurek,” the pope said, using his childhood nickname. “Stand straight as you always have.”

The next morning, notes author O’Brien, a Roman newspaper ran the headline: “Pope Grants First Audience to Hebrew Friend.” From 1979 on, the two childhood buddies worked together behind the scenes on the effort to bring about the Holy See’s recognition of Israel.

His friendship with Jerzy wasn’t the only thing that helped shape the pope’s eventual mission as he came of age in war-torn Poland.

After the future Pope John Paul II felt a strong call to the priesthood, the first meeting with the archbishop about his vocation was held in secret as German invaders prohibited new Catholic seminarians in Poland. According to the extensive biography God’s Broker, for which author Antoni Gronowicz spent more than 200 hours hearing John Paul’s stories straight from the pope’s lips, “From the beginning of the occupation, Karol Wojtyla and other young people of various religious persuasions involved themselves in political and cultural work for which punishment was a concentration camp or death.”

One of the future pope’s “underground functions,” Gronowicz wrote, “was to provide working papers for hunted people, so they could identify themselves as workers in various industrial establishments and escape immediate arrest.”

Novelist Wojciech Zukrowski told the biographer that, in the Solvay quarry in which he and the future pope toiled, the latter had an “extremely dangerous” job carrying big boxes of dynamite, but “Karol considered himself lucky that he could also provide dynamite to various underground military groups.”

Fellow laborer and writer Juliusz Kydrynski said their lives were saved by the one of the quarry supervisors, who falsified records when the young workers who had lots of experience with books and theater but little experience at heavy manual labor were driven to exhaustion. The quarry job saved the future pope’s life when he was arrested in 1942; while he was released because of his work in an essential industry, others in the roundup were sent to Auschwitz.

One can only reason it was divine intervention that saved the future pope from at least two more brushes with death at the hands of Nazis.

The pope told Gronowicz the story of how he was walking home to his basement apartment in early 1944 after a grueling workday. “I felt heavy and thought I would collapse from exhaustion,” John Paul II said. “In a split second I saw a heavy German army truck speed toward me. I did not have the strength to move far and fast away. The truck hit me.” The Nazis left him on the road to die.

He awoke the next day in a hospital in “tremendous pain,” with his face, head and arms bandaged. The pope would learn a few weeks into his recovery that a young woman had discovered him on the road, pulled him to safety and bandaged his wounds before bringing him to the hospital. “According to one doctor the unknown woman said that she had escaped from the Krakow ghetto and was in mortal danger so that she could not get in touch with the hospital, but she would appreciate the doctor letting someone know at the store on Krowoderska Street,” the pontiff recounted. “She insisted that I must live.”

When he was well enough, John Paul II pounded the pavement in that neighborhood, trying to glean any information about his mysterious savior. “Later, some people on Krowoderska Street said, ‘Yesterday the Gestapo arrested a woman with Jewish looks in front of our store.’ Then someone said that she left for Zakopane to hide in the mountains. Others, that they knew a Jewish woman who went west to England, or that she was already in Israel.”

The pontiff never stopped looking for the woman, “praying and asking God to let me see her and thank her.”

On Aug. 6, 1944, aka “Black Sunday,” the Nazis swept through Krakow to round up all able-bodied men in fear of an uprising like that which had begun in Warsaw days before.

The young Karol Wojtyla, now 24 years old, was trapped in his dank basement apartment, praying while anticipating soldiers would come bursting through his door.

“To be in Krakow and smell the burning bodies and look at the eyes of death every moment was another experience,” the pope said. “…The Germans searched Tyniecka Street, but they missed Number 10. If they had not overlooked my building, I would not be here.”

It was an upbringing that not only shaped the pope as a man, but influenced how John Paul II would raise a generation of Catholics to reject anti-Semitism, terror, and tyranny.

“You had at the head of the Church someone who knew Jews, saw with his own eyes what transpired during the Holocaust, who fought against communist tyranny,” said Rabbi Cooper.

After the war, a young boy was brought by a Catholic family, Josefa and Bronislav Yachowitch, to Father Karol Wojtyla for baptism.

Shachne Berger was just a toddler when the Krakow ghetto was liquidated. His parents beseeched their Catholic friends to shelter the boy, and left with him letters instructing that he be raised Jewish along with contact information for relatives in North America.

“From 1942 to 1945 we were always fleeing, from one house to another, and from one city to a new place,” Berger told the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera a few months before John Paul II’s death. “Many hostile and anti-Semitic Poles were suspicious of my looks and thought I was a Jew, and if they had reported us, my adoptive parents would have risked death.”

The future pope wouldn’t baptize young Shachne until he knew his story and the last wishes of the boy’s parents, who had died in Auschwitz. The contents of the will were revealed, and Father Wojtyla refused to conduct the baptism. The boy was eventually united with his Jewish family across the Atlantic.

Shachne kept in touch with Mrs. Yachowitch through letters, and wasn’t told the story of how he might not have been raised in the faith of his birth until the new pope was named in 1978.

“For the first time, she revealed that she had tried to baptize me and educate me as a Catholic, but that she had been stopped by a young priest, future cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, recently elected pope,” he said.

The year after his installation as pope, John Paul II visited Auschwitz, declaring “it is not possible to pass by this inscription with indifference.” In 1986, he stepped inside Rome’s synagogue – a walk across town hundreds of years in the making that proved to be one of many leaps in relations between the faiths. “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion,” he said. “You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

Cooper said it was “all the more remarkable” that John Paul II came from the historically anti-Semitic Polish church, yet as he’d witnessed and experienced Nazi tyranny he became “the person who can take the necessary step of the ultimate respect” – and the pontiff did that in 2000, when he visited the Western Wall and tucked a note into a crack:

God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves to
genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.

“You couldn’t think of a more appropriate gesture to the Jewish world,” Cooper said.

Pope John Paul II holds his skull cap as he admires the ceiling of the synagogue in Rome, April 13, 1986. At right is Rome's chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. (AP Photo)

Pope John Paul II holds his skull cap as he admires the ceiling of the synagogue in Rome, April 13, 1986. At right is Rome’s chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. (AP Photo)

Revolution Spans Pontificates

For all of the work that John Paul II did to raise a generation of Catholics to revile anti-Semitism and recognize their communion with the Jews, the first, giant step in reconciliation began with Pope John XXIII. Work on Nostra Aetate as part of the Second Vatican Council would run into the pontificate of Paul VI, but the transformative decree on the Church’s position toward other faiths was commissioned by John XXIII.

“He made a decision that there would have to be a whole new look, theologically based, of the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” Rabbi Cooper said. “Pope John XXIII set the stage and elevated expectations from the Jewish world.”

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation launched the Roncalli Committee at the turn of the millennium to extensively investigate the work of the then-Apostolic Nuncio to France to save Jews during the Holocaust, and submitted the resulting dossier to Yad Vashem after 11 years of research. The “Good Pope,” the foundation notes, “made written requests, exerted personal influence and mobilized ecclesiastical dignitaries, leaders and officials from different nations to achieve the rescue and salvation of Jewish lives threatened by Nazism.”

“Likewise, Nuncio Roncalli played an active role in the collaboration with the Delegation of the Jewish Agency of Palestine in Istanbul, in the undercover delivery of immigration certificates to Palestine for Jewish refugees in Europe. A special recognition deserves Nuncio Roncalli’s decision of sending priests from different countries ‘temporary baptismal certificates,’ religious documents that allowed thousands of Jews to save their lives.”

As pope, John XXIII would strip the “perfidious” slur against Jews out of the Good Friday prayer and played a pivotal role in clearing the path for the partition that would lead to the creation of the State of Israel.

In 2014, the Knesset honored the pope who saved Jewish lives. “There has not been an event like today’s in the history of the Knesset, an event which is so important to our relations with the Christian and Catholic world,” said former Immigration and Absorption Minister Yair Tzeven during the commemoration. “John XXIII should serve as an example for all men of the need to bring together peoples of different races, faiths and beliefs.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, the grandfather of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, met many times with Roncalli in their mutual effort to save Jews. “At these meetings the archbishop wept,” Isaac Herzog said at the Knesset podium, recalling his grandfather’s memory of the encounters. “John XXIII made tremendous efforts to save Jews, and because of him thousands of Jews were indeed saved.”

“He helped the Jewish people in every way through a deep feeling of responsibility,” Herzog added.

Fittingly, John Paul II and John XXIII, two giants of Jewish-Catholic relations, were canonized together in April 2014.

Nostra Aetate declared that the crucifixion of Jesus “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today,” and Jews “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”

The document also “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Rabbi Rosen, who met with Pope Francis to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in October, said the “real copyright” of the turning point in relations between the Vatican and Jews belonged to John XXIII despite the lack of media visibility during the era for his efforts. But “the man who took this relationship to new heights was John Paul II.”

“He was ahead of his time in understanding contemporary media,” Rosen told me. “He understood the language of Madison Avenue better than many in the West.” The commitment to the Catholic-Jewish relationship “came naturally to him,” and John XXIII’s bold steps forward had a “big impact” on John Paul II.

At the Oct. 28 interfaith celebration in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis singled out as “deserving of special gratitude to God” the “veritable transformation” of relations between the Church and Jews over the past five decades.

“Indifference and opposition have changed into cooperation and benevolence. From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers. The Council, with the Declaration Nostra Aetate, has indicated the way: ‘yes’ to rediscovering Christianity’s Jewish roots; ‘no’ to every form of anti-Semitism and blame for every wrong, discrimination and persecution deriving from it,” said Pope Francis. “Knowledge, respect and esteem for one another are the way.”

When Francis was in Philadelphia during his September East Coast swing, he made a surprise stop at Saint Joseph’s University to pray before and bless the Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time statue, which depicts “Synagogue and Church as both proud crowned women, living in covenant with God side by side, and learning from one another’s sacred texts and traditions about their distinctive experiences of the Holy One.” It was commissioned to mark the Nostra Aetate anniversary.

The stop was especially poignant considering which old friend of the pope’s dropped by the university for the occasion: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom then-Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio penned the fraternal dialogue book On Heaven and Earth.

In his November 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis stressed that “the Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the Sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity.”

“As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.”

Rabbi Skorka told La Stampa in 2013 that he was confident the new pope would be the best friend of the Jewish people. “His frank, sincere, deep and moving dialogue with many Jews in Argentina, not just with me, is clear evidence of this,” the rabbi said. “This is now a history, not just single cases, a history of attention and respect.”

“The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the December 2015 document from the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, a panel established by Pope Paul VI, stresses that “the Torah is the instruction for a successful life in right relationship with God.”

“In this covenant community it should be evident for Christians that the covenant that God concluded with Israel has never been revoked but remains valid on the basis of God’s unfailing faithfulness to his people, and consequently the New Covenant which Christians believe in can only be understood as the affirmation and fulfillment of the Old.”

Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, called the document “a remarkable reaffirmation of the positive changes” in the Church since Nostra Aetate. “It is significant because it places a very clear emphasis on the rejection of the deicide charge, Christianity’s indebtedness to Judaism, the rejection of replacement theology, and the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant with God,” Sandmel said, adding, “The notion that the Catholic Church considers its relationship with the Jewish people to be unique and essential to its own existence and self-understanding is a powerful testimony that a torturous history can be overcome when both our common humanity and differences are seen as sources of blessing.”

After a brief tour of Auschwitz concentration camp, Pope John Paul II kneels in prayer at the wall of death after he laid a wreath on June 7, 1979. (AP Photo)

After a brief tour of Auschwitz concentration camp, Pope John Paul II kneels in prayer at the wall of death after he laid a wreath on June 7, 1979. (AP Photo)

The Church and the Jewish State

Modern politics has compelled Catholics to put that interfaith respect into action when called to defend the Jewish State.

In a 1994 issue of Parade magazine, Pope John Paul II declared, “It must be understood that the Jews, who for thousands of years were dispersed among the nations of the world… decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right!”

In an August 2014 issue of National Catholic Review’s America magazine, Father John J. Conley, the current Bernard P. Knott chair of Philosophy and Theology at Loyola University in Maryland, pushed back against the boycott, divest and sanctions movements in academia in a column simply titled, “For Israel.”

Conley was prompted to write the piece by an email he’d received from one of the professional societies to which he belonged “to encourage the board of trustees of my institution to divest from any businesses operating in Israel or in the adjacent occupied territories.”

“Why was Israel—and Israel alone these days—singled out for such bitter excoriation?” wrote the Jesuit in response. “I informed my interlocutor that as a result of his plea I was applying for a Fulbright Fellowship to work in Israel, preferably at Hebrew University. I attached a photo of the stainless steel menorah I had just placed beneath the crucifix in my office.”

He also noted a trio emails he’d received from Catholic organizations condemning Israeli strikes in Gaza. “What is striking in all three email alerts is the omissions. Not a single missive mentions, let alone condemns, the missile attacks by Hamas, the terrorist organization currently ruling Gaza, against civilian targets in Israel. None of them mentions the bias-related murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank in June [2014].”

“…Our growing moral obsession with the mote in Israel’s eye is disturbing. This scapegoating suggests that an ancient, lethal prejudice has yet to die.”

A 2013 Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life poll found mixed Catholic attitudes on Israel, with 22 percent responding that the U.S. is too supportive of the Jewish State – the same number as the general public overall, and less than non-religious Jews who registered at 27 percent.

White Evangelicals poll more strongly on support of Israel – often because of a desire to keep Christian holy sites out of the hands of Muslims, though the motives for this support also often rest in the end times. A TIME/CNN poll a few years after 9/11 found that more than a third of Israel supporters in America said they express such support because they believe the Bible states that a Jewish nation in the Holy Land is a prerequisite for the return of Jesus.

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who took a stab at the White House in the 2012 election, returned recently from an Israel trip arranged by the Family Research Council declaring that mass conversion of the Jews is needed because the end times are near.

“We recognize the shortness of the hour, and that’s why we as a remnant want to be faithful in these days and do what it is that the Holy Spirit is speaking to each one of us, to be faithful in the Kingdom and to help bring in as many as we can — even among the Jews — share Jesus Christ with everyone that we possibly can because, again, He’s coming soon,” Bachmann said on the radio show of FRC president Tony Perkins.

Within mainstream Protestant denominations, attitudes toward Israel can be troubling.

Conley’s America piece noted the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly vote last year in favor of BDS, indicating “how deeply the stigmatization of Israel has penetrated mainstream Protestantism—and there are few sectors more intellectually and economically elite within that mainstream than American Presbyterianism.”

Rabbi Cooper highlighted how the members of the World Council of Churches “weren’t too excited when the State of Israel came about” and “did nothing about the Shoah.”

“I don’t take for granted the changes in the Vatican as the same horrors did not register with that other group,” he said, adding that some of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism was “so pure the Nazis quoted it verbatim.”

Conversely, there was “always a sort of synergy between Catholics and the Jewish people,” said Cooper. And the legitimacy, the mutual respect – “that’s stuff you can’t really buy.”

“Other groups within Christendom didn’t do the same.”

Cooper notes that the Vatican flag flies on many buildings in the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem, “respecting Catholicism’s presence in the Holy Land” and fluttering as a reminder of how critically important the relationship remains.

“There’s no other place you could do that in the Middle East and be safe,” he added.

While Jewish groups in the United States praised the new Vatican document on Jewish-Catholic relations, many noted that it could have delved further into the Jewish people’s tie to the Holy Land. Rabbi Rosen, who was invited by the Vatican to provide a Jewish response, was disappointed that the document fails to acknowledge “the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people.” The ADL wanted to see “a more positive affirmation of the centrality of the State of Israel for Jews.”

Pope Francis stands next to his good friend Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka after praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel, on May 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, Pool)

Pope Francis stands next to his good friend Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka after praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israel, on May 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, Pool)

Lessons for Future Generations

The Pew survey two years ago found that the greatest percentage across the religious spectrum of those thinking that U.S. support for Israel was too great consisted of the Millennial generation. Is it possible that lessons taught to the John Paul II generation, those who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, aren’t catching with younger Americans?

This concern is reflected in new document from the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: “The fundamental changes in relations between Christians and Jews which were initiated by ‘Nostra Aetate’ must also be made known to the coming generations and be received and disseminated by them.”

“In Pope John Paul II you saw someone who really cared about the relationship to the Jewish people… we knew this man was a completely different breed,” Cooper said. “John Paul II was the grand slam; he hit the home run.”

Pope Francis, he added, “has hit singles and doubles” in the area of Jewish-Catholic relations as he “wants people to focus on feeding poor, getting back to basics about human interaction.”

Catholics and Jews, the rabbi said, should continue to build on the “basic ideals that underpin our faith.”

“We do have a commonality of purpose, but not always commonality of language… Catholics should continue to feel comfortable and fully invested in their opportunities to see all the holy sites. We live in a world where none of that can be taken for granted,” Cooper said, stressing that “safeguarding Catholic rites in Israel is important for Jews.”

“We continue to live together in major metropolitan areas – help the poor, feed the hungry, we can work together on that.”

Indeed, the new Vatican document notes that Jews and Catholic can work together on protecting the faithful in the Holy Land and in the “social-charitable sphere” caring for the poor and disadvantaged. “When Jews and Christians make a joint contribution through concrete humanitarian aid for justice and peace in the world, they bear witness to the loving care of God. No longer in confrontational opposition but cooperating side by side, Jews and Christians should seek to strive for a better world.”

Meanwhile, Cooper said, Catholics and Jews should be mindful of the fact that pro-Palestinian activists and supporters – some of them in Father Conley’s inbox, as we saw – are “pushing very hard to get the Vatican to reverse course” on Israel relations.

Rabbi Rosen emphasized “part of the challenge” is that John Paul II was “too successful” – “young Catholics don’t know that history of anti-Semitism.”

But, thankfully, he said, there was no lapse from the Vatican in the strength of Jewish-Catholic ties after the beloved pope’s passing. “Benedict was fully committed to continuing in John Paul II’s path,” Rosen said, noting the difference it made to have popes with the personal experience of having lived in the period of the Shoah.

The document produced by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews stresses an “important goal of Jewish-Catholic dialogue consists in jointly combating all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism, which have certainly not yet been eradicated and re-emerge in different ways in various contexts… Because of the strong bond of friendship between Jews and Catholics, the Catholic Church feels particularly obliged to do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.”

Another challenge is the evolution of the Catholic community, with more Hispanic members of the Church, and Nostra Aetate “not an integral, required part” of the formation of priests. “The biggest thing that needs to be done is further education,” Rosen said – not just in the Catholic Church, but there are “still places in the Jewish community that avoid talking about Christianity.”

Rosen stressed that some 30 Catholic institutions now host centers devoted to Catholic-Jewish studies programs, highlighting how “such a momentous development” from the papacies of John XXIII and John Paul II has taken on “a life of its own.”

“The stronger our relationships, the more able we are to work together on challenges,” he said. “Building up those bonds of understanding is the most important thing to do.”

The United States, Rosen added, enjoys the benefit of “vibrant communities living among each other,” Jewish and Catholic neighbors, to facilitate bringing Nostra Aetate to life each day. “Neither one is dominant, and neither is dominated,” he said, conditions that have led to an “effective internalizing of changes that have taken place at an official level.”

For Pope Francis, the rabbi stressed, “the friendship is nothing he has to take any effort for; it comes naturally.”

“Pope Francis is the first who has known living Jewish communities and closely interacted with them,” Rosen said. “By the time John Paul II was an adult, there was no living Jewish community to interact with.”