Theodor Herzl, in his efforts to enlist international support for the Zionist project, managed to obtain an audience with Pope Pius X and to set forth his vision before the pontiff. In his diary, Herzl recalled the pope’s response: “We will not be able to recognize you because you did not recognize Our Lord. We will not be able to prevent Jews from returning to Palestine but our clergy will be ready with holy water in order to baptize them all.”
Thus Pius X summed up the Catholic Church’s traditional attitude towards the Jews, whereby the Jews have been punished because they refused to acknowledge the Christian Gospel and they are condemned to wander among the nations until the end of days as proof of their wrongdoing.
Today the situation is entirely different. The Vatican maintains full relations with the State of Israel and the last two popes have visited the country, offering great respect to its elected officials and its representative, political and religious institutions. The Jews are described by the leaders of the Catholic Church as “the beloved elder brother from the Old Testament − You are the beloved elder brother of the Church of the original Covenant never broken and never to be broken” (in the words of Pope John Paul II).
The last two popes also emphasized the fact that the Christians have a unique spiritual connection to the Jewish people, unparalleled in the relations between other world religions.
This amazing turnaround is credited to one person: Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Roncalli was the papal nuncio in Turkey during the Holocaust and acted in various ways to save thousands of Jews. After the war he did everything he could to influence Catholic countries to support the establishment of the State of Israel. Upon his ascent to the papacy in 1958, when he chose the name John XXIII, he took it with the words: “I am Joseph your brother” (in the words of the biblical Joseph to his brothers in Egypt; Giuseppe is Joseph in Italian).
John XXIII saw to amending the liturgy of the Catholic Church and eliminated from it any disparaging word about the Jews. In 1962 he convened the bishops of the church serving in various countries around the world in order to discuss the church’s path in the modern era. Among the subjects that came up was the church’s attitude towards Judaism and the Jews. This meeting, the work of which spread over three years, is known by the name Vatican II, and the document that dealt with other religions and especially Judaism is known by the Latin title Nostra Aetate (In Our Age).
This document brought about a revolution in Christianity’s attitude towards the Jews: For the first time there was a declaration negating any claim that the Jewish people was responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, the Nostra Aetate declaration rejected the doctrine that the Jews had been cast out by God and the church came to take their place. The document ratified the eternity of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, alongside a firm condemnation of anti-Semitism. (Pope John Paul II defined anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and mankind.”)
Sadly, Pope John Paul XXIII died before the Nostra Aetate declaration was published and before he managed to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. In his stead a more “cautious” pope was chosen, who apparently was concerned about negative reactions in the Arab world, including harm to the Christian communities in those countries. Only 28 years later was the Fundamental Agreement signed between the Vatican and the State of Israel, which led to the strengthening of the ties between them. President Shimon Pers defined this correctly: “There have never been such good and close ties between us.” These full relations made possible the papal visits to Israel by the last two popes. They have also led to the establishment of a bilateral commission for interfaith dialogue between the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is currently marking a decade of its activity.
All these positive achievements and developments are the fruit of the courage and vision of one man with a huge heart and a sincere love for the Jewish people − Pope John XXIII − who, as noted, saved many Jews during he Holocaust, supported the establishment of the State of Israel and paved the way for his successors who followed in his footsteps.
Despite all this, today there is no official or government recognition of what he did. With the aim of rectifying that, a public committee has been established, which has as a key part of its activity a conference in honor of the memory of Pope John XXIII. From the practical standpoint, however, this is not enough and we should do more. In our textbooks there is hardly any mention of the revolution John XXIII fomented in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the Jewish people, and even his heroic actions in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust are not known to most Israelis.
Especially now, when we do not lack for enemies, it is essential that we recognize this hero who did so much for us and led some of those who hated us to love us or at least to befriend us. This is a challenge for the Education Ministry and the state’s teaching establishment, and it is a debt of gratitude towards a figure of such great historic importance for the State of Israel, the Jewish people and their relations with the Christian world. This “world” for the most part is not a part of the problem of anti-Semitism today but rather a part of the solution, and this to a large extent is thanks to John XXIII.
Rabbi Rosen, formerly the chief rabbi of Ireland, is the international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee and an honorary adviser on interfaith affairs to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.