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Opinion

July 17, 2006

A pope for all people

I remember that my father had an abiding affection for Pope John XXIII. My daughters will remember that their father had an abiding affection for Pope John Paul II. Jews have had many enemies over the centuries, but we have had many friends as well.

Let me add one thought more, a Sunday morning reference to First Corinthians: The greatest of these was John Paul II.

The late pope lived, moved, studied, played and prayed among Jews. He grew up with Jews, he watched Jews being taken off to Nazi captivity and then cruel death, he returned the love that many Jews had for him. It is not too much to say, and perhaps to use the phrase for the first time ever without irony, that many of his best friends were Jews.

That is why a remarkable exhibit - originated, with the help of Cincinnati's Jewish community, by one Catholic institution, Xavier University, and now appearing in another, Duquesne University - is so moving a midsummer experience. It reminds us of the brotherhood of man, of the common faith of humanity, and of the capacity of people of different religions and outlooks to be, as the pope put it on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, "a blessing to one another."

Consider how extraordinary this is. Imagine telling someone in the years just after World War II - in the chilliest days of the Cold War - that in the coming decades the Catholic Church would select as its pope a man ordained a priest behind the Iron Curtain who would undermine the very foundations of the Soviet bloc, a cleric dripping with Polish nationalism and marinated in the traditions of the Polish church who would be a beacon of hope for Jews - a light, you might say, among the nations. You would be dismissed as a dreamer.

And yet in a century that was not congenial to dreamers, all this became true. It is evidence, perhaps, that there is a God. We need not debate that question. There was a Karol Wojtyla.

The young Karol Wojtyla grew up in Wadowice, a Polish city home to Catholics and Jews alike. (Jewish population before the war: 2,000. Jewish population in 1944, a year before the war ended: 0.) The pope vividly remembered the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue, which dated to the late 1880s. Both religious groups, he said, "were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God."

The removal of one of his friends' family from Wadowice was a searing experience for him, and he said at the time, perhaps hoping that saying this would make it true: "Not all Poles are anti-Semitic." Ginka Beer, his neighbor and part of the family that had to leave its home, remembered the young boy's reaction: "He did not say a word, but his face went very red. I said farewell to him as kindly as I could, but he was so moved that he could not find a single word in reply."

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