More than a million people have seen an exhibit about John Paul II and the Jewish people, “A Blessing to One Another”. A beautifully presented collection of photos, video footage, documents and artefacts, it has toured the United States and is now being exhibited in the Vatican.

As Pope, Karol Wojtyla shattered a chain of 2,000 years of painful history, becoming the first pontiff ever to enter a synagogue, officially visit and recognize the State of Israel, and formally engage in an act of repentance for the Catholic Church’s historical treatment of Jews.

The chief rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, commented: “Seeing in St. Peter’s Square the banner announcing the exhibit with an image of a pope — that’s normal — but a pope shaking hands with a rabbi? That’s not normal. It’s a sign of how times have changed.” 

MercatorNet spoke to a curator of the exhibit, Professor William Madges, of Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia.

MercatorNet: Your exhibit has been seen by more than a million people. Why has it been so popular?

William Madges: I think it has been popular for several reasons. One reason is the exhibit’s message, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing the human dignity of everyone, including those who are different from us. Another reason is the great popularity of Pope John Paul II.

What inspired you to organise it?

The idea that inspired Dr James Buchanan, Rabbi Abie Ingber, and me to create the exhibit came from Dr Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and professor emerita from Brooklyn College in New York. She had done research into the life and ministry of Fr Karol Wojtyla and was impressed with his positive interactions with the Jewish people. While teaching at Xavier University (Cincinnati) in 2003 as a visiting professor, she asked whether we thought many people knew this. Our answer was “no,” so we decided to do something about that by creating the exhibit. (In 2003 I was the chairperson of the Theology Department at Xavier.)

It has been featured in several Jewish museums in the US. How have Jewish viewers reacted?

The exhibit has received a very positive response from both Jewish and Catholic visitors, not only because the exhibit tells the “big” story of the transformation of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, but also because it tells the “smaller” and more personal story of the special relationship between Jerzy Kluger (the future pope’s closest Jewish friend) and Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II.

What in his personal history explains John Paul II’s close relationship with the Jewish people?

As a child, Karol Wojtyla had regular contact with Jewish boys and girls–in school, in theater, in sports. Early in life he became friends with Jews. About 25 percent of his school class was comprised of Jews. In Wadowice during the 1920s and 1930s the population included almost 10,000 Catholics and about 2,000 Jews. When playing soccer, the Jewish team often did not have enough players, so Karol would frequently be the goalie for the Jewish team. Karol also learned about respect for others from his father. As a teenager he went with his father to the synagogue in Wadowice to hear cantor David Koussevitsky sing services. They had been invited by Jerzy’s father, who was president of the Jewish community.

How did he react to the persecution of Jews as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland?

Of course, he was greatly upset by the persecution of Jews. Thinking especially of his Jewish friends from Wadowice, their suffering touched him personally.

It was rather daring of the new Pope to officially enter a synagogue, wasn’t it? What other ground-breaking measures did he take?

Yes, it was a bold move. He was the first pope formally to enter a synagogue, where he sat on the same platform with Rabbi Elio Toaff, Chief Rabbi of Rome. But the pope did other ground-breaking achievements: he established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel by signing the Fundamental Agreement on December 30, 1993; in March 2000 he went to the Holy Land, where he placed a prayer in the Western Wall, asking God for forgiveness of past treatment of Jews and committing the Church to brotherhood with the people of the covenant. He regularly spoke of Jews as the elder brothers of Christians.

Have John Paul II’s actions given a new impetus to relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people? Do suspicions and hostility linger?

Yes, he gave new impetus to strengthening the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

The Pope stated on more than one occasion that the covenant God made with the Jewish people has not been abrogated. This very important statement moves against the centuries-long Christian conviction that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was replaced by God’s covenant with Christians. It has only been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council, which initiated a major change in relations between Catholics and Jews, and only 10 years since the death of Saint John Paul II, so the teaching and attitudes of the Council and the Pope may have not yet eliminated all elements of antipathy in every part of the world.

This is also the 50th anniversary of a document from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate. Can you tell us a bit about its importance? How did that shape Karol Wojtyla’s attitudes as Pope?

Nostra Aetate is a watershed moment in the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions, especially Judaism. Instead of highlighting differences, the document sought to identify common ground with other religions. Nostra Aetate acknowledged a ray of truth in other religions. With regard to Judaism, Nostra Aetate affirmed the common spiritual heritage between Christianity and Judaism; absolved Jews–then and today–of collective guilt for the death of Jesus; and rejected all forms of violence and anti-Semitism against Jews. As Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla participated in the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council that produced Nostra Aetate.

The teaching of that document, the subsequent work of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews (established by Pope Paul VI), and his personal positive relations with Jews and his own convictions all influenced Karol Wojtyla’s attitudes as Pope.

William Madges is a professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. 

After teaching at Xavier University for more than 20 years, Dr. Madges came to Saint Joseph's University in 2006 to become the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. He left that position in 2013...