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Pope John Paul II
“Popes Come and Popes Go, but this One will be Remembered”

Ciao Amici,

There are popes, and there are popes. In a continuous line that starts with St. Peter in the first century A.D. and runs right up to the present, the Roman Catholic Church has seen all manner of men assume the role of Pontius Maximus, the great bridge: between God and man, church and individual, the divine and the everyday. There were builder popes, and others who sought to tear down the voluminous ancient Roman ruins that still remained in the city because they were unholy and pagan. There were popes who had families, and others who had various artists in the employ of the Vatican paint fig leaves on the unclad figures of Micelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sisteen Chapel long after the master had passed on. There were courageous popes and cowardly popes, popes who spoke out in the face of injustice and those who remained silent, some who collected art and others who did nothing but pray, but it's been a long time since we have seen a man like the current pope -- Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.

The first strange thing about him is that he is not Italian. Hailing from a small town in southern Poland -- a country full of devout Catholics -- he is the first pope without an Italian surname since an Englishman named Florenszoon Boeyens died in 1523 as Pope Adrian IV. He was chosen, some say, because he came from eastern Europe and would thus help defeat the Communist regimes that had dominated that part of the world since the end of World War II, and in that sense the choice was a good one in that the Berlin Wall is gone and Marxism-Leninism no longer plays a leading role on the world stage. But in a significantly other aspect, John Paul is unlike every other pope who has preceded him.

He was once an actor, and in the three times I have seen him, I can attest to his presence in a larger-than-life sense. I once stood on the Via della Conciliazione, not far from the entrance to Piazza San Pietro, on a cold, humid, steel-gray winter day as his speeding black Mercedes whizzed by, and all I could see in the back seat, almost rooted in the middle as if he had been created for the role, was an eminence in white -- cap, hair, face, and cloak -- truly a person with charisma. He was the first pope ever to appear publicly at the Campidoglio with the mayor of Rome, an acknowledgment after centuries of disdain that a municipal government does exist in the city even if his predecessors wanted to believe that the only legitimate temporal power in Rome was the papacy itself. He has traveled around the world more than all other popes combined, and although when it's a matter of traditional church doctrine he is as conservative as anyone -- no to contraception, no to abortion, no to homosexuality, no to women priests -- his sense of timing in the geopolitical arena is unparalleled.

And in one area, his personal views are genuinely revolutionary. The man actually likes Jews. I say this not as a joke, or a statement about individuals, but as a way of understanding what has taken place in the relations between official Roman Catholicism and the existence of world Jewry during his papacy. Growing up in pre-WWII Poland, John Paul II knew Jews. He lived next door to them, ate with them, went to school with them, played soccer with them, let them copy his homework, and after the war, as a young priest, carried one of them who had just been liberated from Auschwitz on his very back for a mile because she could not walk herself. To him Jews were people just like any other, and to those of us who have grown up in a secular world, you have to step back and really see how extraordinary that is.

From the absolute beginnings of Christianity, relations between Christians and Jews were strained. The early followers of Jesus were of course Jewish and had hoped that all Jews would accept the Good News. When that did not happen, the Christians turned to the pagans of the Roman Empire for converts, but never forgot the rejection their forebears had received at the hands of the Jewish tribes. When, three centuries later, Christianity became legal under Constantine in 312 AD, it didn't take long for its high officials to exact their revenge. At the Council of Nicea just twelve years later, Jews were declared "perfidious," "Christ-killers," people to be avoided, converted, or persecuted. Thus began nearly two thousand years of mistrust, misunderstanding, segregation, hatred, and, often, violence. It wasn't until Pope John XXIII and the Vatican Council of 1965 that Jews were absolved of the murder of Jesus, but it took the papacy of John Paul II to truly reorder the landscape.

He is the first pope to visit Israel and actually say the name of the country. He is the first pope to apologize to the Jews for the centuries of persecution on the part of Christians. He is the first pope to step inside a synagogue, having gone to the main temple in Rome in 1985. He is the first pope to insist that Jews be called "our older brothers." And now, as part of the Jubilee activities of 2000, he is certainly the first pope to stand before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and place a written wish in one of the many ancient crevices, asking again for forgiveness and for the promotion of world brotherhood. As a gesture it was spectacularly telegenic. In light of the sad history between Catholics and Jews, it was truly unbelievable.

Let us hope these views are not confined to just one great man, but represent something enduring within the Church, so that the traditional wounds of the ages may heal.

Alan Epstein

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