The Polish Pope reiterated the Catholic Church's condemnation of antisemitism

The words of Pope Saint John Paul II to the Jews, our 'older brothers'

On October 22, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint John Paul II, a Pope who knew the Holocaust closely.

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The condemnation of the Catholic Church against antisemitism

Saint John Paul II was born in Poland, the country that lost the largest percentage of its population during World War II. Jews and Polish Catholics were victims of genocide at the hands of the Nazis, suffering atrocities of dimensions never seen in the history of humanity. This common suffering was, perhaps, what most encouraged the Polish Pope to strengthen ties between Jews and Catholics, ties that had already begun to be strengthened with the declaration "Nostra Aetate" of the Second Vatican Council in 1965:

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

The first visit of a Pope to a synagogue in 1986

In 1986, Saint John Paul II became the first Pope to visit a synagogue, specifically the one in Rome. In his speech before the Jewish community of the capital of Italy, the Polish Pope recalled the precedents of that visit:

"I've been thinking about this visit for a long time. In fact, the Chief Rabbi was kind enough to come to receive me in February 1981, when I made a pastoral visit to the nearby parish of San Carlo ai Catinari. Furthermore, some of you have come to the Vatican more than once, both on the occasion of the numerous audiences that I was able to hold with representatives of Italian and world Jewry, and even before, in the times of my predecessors, Paul VI, John XXIII and Pius XII. I also know that the Chief Rabbi, the night before the death of Pope John, did not hesitate to go to St. Peter's Square, accompanied by a group of faithful Jews, to pray and watch, mixed among the multitude of Catholics and other Christians, as if to bear witness, silently but effectively, to the greatness of soul of that Pontiff, open to all without distinction, and in particular to his Jewish brothers.

The legacy that I would now like to collect is precisely that of Pope John, who once, passing through here - as the Chief Rabbi has just recalled - stopped his car to bless the crowd of Jews leaving this same Temple. And I would like to collect his legacy at this moment, finding myself no longer outside but, thanks to your generous hospitality, inside the Synagogue of Rome."

The words of Saint John Paul II on the Holocaust

In his speech, Saint John Paul II reiterated the rejection of antisemitism proclaimed in the declaration "Nostra Aetate" 21 years earlier, and added:

"I would like once again to express a word of execration for the genocide decreed during the last war against the Jewish people and which caused the holocaust of millions of innocent victims. When visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp on the 7th June 1979 and gathering in prayer for the numerous victims from different nations, I stopped in particular before the plaque with the inscription in Hebrew, thus expressing the feelings of my soul. “This inscription evokes the memory of the people, whose sons and daughters were destined for total extermination. This people has its origin in Abraham who is the father of our faithas expressed by Paul of Tarsus. Precisely this people, who received from God the commandment "thou shalt not kill", He experienced in himself in particular what it means to kill. In front of this plaque no one can pass indifferent" ( Insegnamenti 1979, p. 1484).

The Jewish community of Rome also paid a high price in blood. And it was certainly a significant gesture that, in the dark years of racial persecution, the doors of our convents, of our churches, of the Roman Seminary , of the buildings of the Holy See and of Vatican City itself were opened wide to offer refuge and salvation to many Jews of Rome, hunted by their persecutors.

“You are our favorite brothers”

Furthermore, Saint John Paul II noted that "the Church of Christ discovers its "link" with Judaism "by seeking its own mystery." The Jewish religion is not "extrinsic" to us, but in a way it is "intrinsic" to our religion. Therefore, we have relationships with it that we do not have with any other religion. You are our favorite brothers and, in a way, you could say our older brothers."

The importance of those words in the face of the rise of antisemitism

These days we are experiencing new atrocious manifestations of antisemitism. The terrorist attack suffered by Israel on October 7 is the worst massacre that the Jewish people have suffered since the Holocaust. In Europe, many of us are contemplating, with indignation and shame, demonstrations of support for the terrorists who committed that massacre and acts of harassment of the Jewish community, our "elder" and "favorite brothers", as Saint John Paul II called them.

Those who encourage these manifestations of hatred are mainly Islamic extremists and left-wing extremists, but there are also some who call themselves Catholics and who insist on fueling this infamous hatred against Jews. I hope that these quotes from the greatest Pope of the 20th century serve to remember something that many should already be very clear about: you cannot be a good Christian and at the same time be antisemitic. Antisemitism is a manifestation of hatred incompatible with the Catholic faith and, furthermore, incongruent with the very fact that Christians are followers of Christ, the Son of God who was born within the Jewish people. Antisemitism cannot be protected under the Word of Christ. On the contrary, those who promote antisemitism are doing something perverse and therefore anti-Christian. That hatred should have no place among Christian communities, ever again.


Photo: VaticanNews. Saint John Paul II with Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, during the Polish Pope's visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986.

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