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Pope remembered for interfaith outreach

Eileen Duffy | Wednesday, April 6, 2005

It took thousands of years to build up the barriers that exist between Catholics and people of other faiths, but Pope John Paul II slowly and methodically worked to chip away at some of those walls.In 1979, his first year as pope, he became the first pontiff to visit a concentration camp, Auschwitz.The pope went immediately to the words written in Hebrew and said a prayer in remembrance of Jewish victims.In 1986, he became the first pope since St. Peter to visit and pray in a synagogue. There, he condemned anti-semitism as a sin and referred to Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians.Then, in 1987, John Paul II took major strides in ameliorating the relations between Christians and Jews by meeting with the Jewish leadership of Poland and the United States. He also became the first pope to officially recognize Israel in 1994. Germany sent its first post-communism ambassador to the Vatican in 1990, where the pope reminded Christians that the murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust should always be a burden of guilt and a source of repentance.Those were not the first of his words regarding the Holocaust.In 1998, he issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” or the Holocaust. While that report defended the actions of wartime pontiff Pope Pius XII, it also condemned some of what John Paul II called the cowardly actions of Christians during World War II. Then, in 2000, he led a liturgy of Catholic repentance in Rome, where he expressed sorrow over the hostility towards Jews over the centuries. Debra Grant, executive vice-president of the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley, called the issuing of that apology a “relief” for Jews worldwide. “The fact that the spiritual leader for the Roman Catholic Church made that apology was such a generous and welcomed statement,” she said. “I think that will make him forever be a blessing in the Jewish community.”During the Jubilee year 2000, as the Church was entering its second millennium, John Paul II seized the opportunity to retrace the steps of Moses. In Israel, he visited Yad VaShem, a Holocaust memorial, and met with survivors. He then went to the Western Wall, the one remaining intact wall of the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. There, like so many other Jews before him, he stuffed a note reiterating his 2000 plea for repentance into one of the wall’s cracks and prayed.”That was a moving sight for Jews of all different denominations,” Grant said. “It show[ed] how important being open to other ideas and other faiths was to him.”Associate professor of Islamic studies and theology Gabriel Said Reynolds also noted John Paul II’s openness to other faiths, calling him “a man especially sensitive to the impact of Muslim-Christian relations.” In 2001, John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque, the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, Syria, where John the Baptist’s tomb lies. There he delivered an address to, as he called them in the opening line of this speech, his Muslim “friends.””He always felt Muslims and Christians were natural friends,” Reynolds said. “He felt that there is a family relationship, since both trace back to Abraham.”However, Reynolds said, the pope always remained clear on the stance of Christianity.”When you speak with someone of a different faith, you generally focus on what’s similar [between the two faiths],” Reynolds said. “But he always felt it necessary to be honest about where the heart of the Christian gospel lies.”Reynolds also noted the concern that there is a “general respect” for John Paul II’s commitment to “reminding the world of the plight of the Palestinians.”Even aside from all these accomplishments, other faiths recognize the late pope as a holy man.”The different things he’s done are not as important as the person that he was and the spiritual place that he came from,” Grant said. “His actions were wonderful, but he was also just a really great, kind man, and the Jewish community has valued that for many years.”

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