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Rabbi discusses John Paul II’s youth, papacy

Theresa Civantos | Friday, April 4, 2008

Noting his personal relationships and Polish upbringing, Rabbi David Dalin, professor of history and politics at Ave Maria University and a research fellow at Stanford University, spoke about the effect each had on John Paul II and his papacy. The lecture, entitled “John Paul II and the Jews,” was presented in DeBartolo Hall Thursday.

Dalin’s presentation began with a discussion of the late pope’s childhood in Wadawice, Poland.

“Wadowice was a really small town that was unique in being free of the anti-semitism that characterized a lot of the rest of Poland at this time,” Dalin said.

Dalin focused on the many Jewish influences John Paul II had in his youth.

“John Paul II was one of the only popes to count Jews among his childhood friends,” Dalin said.

Known then as Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II learned to overcome religious boundaries at an early age, Dalin said.

“At his high school, the Catholic boys and the Jewish boys formed different teams to play soccer, but Karol was always willing to play for the Jewish team,” Dalin said.

John Paul II “was the first to admit” that his early Jewish influences affected his relationship to Judaism as pope.

Dalin quoted John Paul II as saying, “It’s from them that I have this feeling of community and friendship about Jews.”

Wojtyla’s closest friend throughout his childhood was Jerzy Kluger, the son of the local synagogue president. On one occasion, Wojtyla attended a Yom Kippur service with his father and the Kluger family, Dalin said.

“John Paul II is the first modern pope to attend a synagogue worship service while he was growing up,” Dalin said.

Kluger and Wojtyla remained close throughout their lives. Kluger and his English-born wife Renee were John Paul II’s first dinner guests at the Vatican after his papal election.

“John Paul II’s life-long friendship with Kluger helped to influence and shape his understanding of Jews and Judaism and of issues relevant to modern Judaism,” Dalin said.

On the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Kluger encouraged John Paul II to hold the first-ever Holocaust Memorial event at the Vatican.

Diplomats, Jewish leaders and over 200 Holocaust survivors attended the event, Dalin said.

“John Paul II was the first bishop of Rome to visit the synagogue of Rome. In doing so, he changed history,” Dalin said.

“John Paul II had a personal commitment to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in the center of Roman Catholicism,” Dalin said. “He was the 20th century’s greatest papal friend of Jews. This was one of the enduring legacies of his pontificate that should be remembered and cherished by Catholics and Jews alike.”