Pope John XXIII is pictured in this undated photo. (CNS photo)
The press called him a caretaker pope. Elected
on October 28, 1958, at the age of 77, he was expected to warm the Chair of
Peter for a few years without making any great waves. They could hardly have
been more wrong.
The people called him Good Pope John because of
his genial nature, and few popes have been more loved.
His successor, Paul VI, hailed him as “an
But the Jews had a special relationship with
John XXIII, and it is their love for him that brought Rabbi David G. Dalin to
Seton Hall University, in South Orange New Jersey. On March 30, he delivered a
guest lecture for the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies to reveal the fruits
of his research into the life and actions of Pope John and his impact on the
Jews of the 20th century.
“In the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Dalin,
“he has been recognized and revered, together with Pope John Paul II, as one of
the 20th century’s greatest papal friends and supporters of the Jewish people.
Catholics are anticipating the day of their shared canonization. I think that’s
being anticipated with a great deal of reverence, happiness, and gratitude by
the Jewish community as well.”
Rabbi Dalin, professor at Ave Maria University
and an expert on American Jewish history and Catholic-Jewish relations, has
sailed into controversial waters before to tell the true stories of popes and
Jews. His book The Myth of Hitler's Pope:
How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis (Regnery: 2005) soundly
debunked defamatory and grossly inaccurate books by Garry Wills and John
Cornwell, who both claimed that Pius did nothing to help the Jews. In fact,
Dalin’s research showed that Pius had been instrumental in saving perhaps
hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.
Rabbi Dalin didn’t let the issue rest there,
but went on to identify the real man who was “Hitler’s cleric,” the Grand Mufti
of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in Icon
of Evil Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam (with John Rothmann,
Random House: 2008) and the impact of John Paul II on Jews in John Paul II and the Jewish People: A
Jewish-Christian Dialogue (editor, with Matthew Levering, Rowman &
Rabbi Dalin's talk was based on research by his good friend, colleague, and co-author John Rothmann , whose article "An Incomparable Pope: John XXIII and the Jews" is being published in the April 2014 issue of Inside the Vatican.
diplomat, friend of the Jews
Born into a family of poor tenant farmers on
November 25, 1881, Roncalli was ordained in 1904. He began his ecclesiastical
career as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo and a lecturer on Church history.
Although many are unaware of it, he was one of the most scholarly modern popes,
even writing a five-volume biography of an important medieval reformer.
Because of his interest in Church history and
his research at the Ambrosial Library in Milan, he came to the attention of its
librarian, Achille Ratti, who would become Pius XI. Pius XI launched Roncalli
on a diplomatic career, making him a bishop in 1925, and appointing him to his
first diplomatic post, Bulgaria, followed by Greece and Turkey.
He was the preeminent Vatican diplomat in
Turkey and Greece during World War II, and played a historic role in saving
tens of thousands of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Hungarian Jews during the
“During the tragic years of the Holocaust,”
Rabbi Dalin observes, “Angelo Roncalli reached heroic heights.”
Pius XII and his Vatican diplomatswith Bishop
Roncalli among the most prominenthad some political leverage in Catholic
countries, and they used it to halt or significantly delay deportation of Jews
by Nazi puppet governments. In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000
Jews by issuing baptismal certificates. During the German occupation of Greece,
he actively aided the local population and prevented the deportation of Greek
Jews to death camps. He was instrumental in preventing tens of thousands of
Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. Through persistent diplomatic
protests, Roncalli and Pius were able to save thousands in Slovakia.
Since Roncalli had a warm relationship the king
and queen of Bulgaria, he wrote to King Boris III saying, “On no account should
Bulgaria agree with the horrific and dishonorable demand of the Nazis,” and
threatening him with the punishment of God if he cooperated.
Chaim Barlas, head of the Jewish Agency for
Palestine in Turkey, requested, and received, help from Bishop Roncalli. He
would later observe of their first encounter: “I realized that I stood before a
man of lofty spiritual stature who was truly interested in the suffering that
had befallen our Jewish people, and who was prepared heart and soul to assist
however he could.”
When Adolf Eichmann attempted to start
deporting Slovenian Jews again, Roncalli intervened. The deportations stopped,
Barlas wrote to the bishop, “Solely as a result of your intervention and that
of the Holy See.”
The most striking case of Bishop Roncalli and
Pope Pius intervening was in Hungary. With 750,000 Jews in Hungary, it had the
largest Jewish community outside of German control. That ended when Germany
invaded in March 1944, and the Nazis began issuing anti-Jewish decrees and
Working on explicit verbal directives from Pius
XII, and with the collaboration of the British government, Roncalli had the
Church issue tens of thousands of immigration certificates and transit visas
Meanwhile, the region of Transnistria, in
Romania, had become a penal colony for deported Jews. When it was made known to
Roncalli that Jews were being moved westward from Transnistria to the death
camps, Pius XII intervened to save them.
Alexandru Șafran, chief rabbi of Romania,
joined Barlas and others in thanking the man who would one day be pope:
In these harsh times, our
thoughts turn more than ever with respect and gratitude for what has been
accomplished by the Vatican on behalf of the Jews in general, and of your
excellency Bishop Roncalli on behalf of the Jews of Romania and Transnistria.
In this most difficult hour of which the Jews of Romania have passed through,
the assistance of the Holy See, carried out by the intermediacy of your high
person, was decisive and salutary. It is not easy to find right words to
express the warmth and consolation we received because of your concern and that
of the Supreme Pontiff for the sufferings which had been pointed out to him by
you after your visit to Transnistria. The Jews of Romania will forever be
grateful to you and will never forget these facts of historical importance.
When the war was over, Bishop Roncalli was a
changed man with a new understanding of the sufferings of the Jewish people.
When, one month shy of his 77th birthday, he succeeded Pius XII as the 261nd
successor to St. Peter, he had a chance to help again.
new era in Catholic-Jewish relations
Cardinal Franz König would explain how Roncalli
“had come to know the distress and moral anguish of the Jews fleeing from their
persecutors. He felt an urgent need to set against it the immeasurable and
bottomless hate of those days, a lasting new word of love.”
Dalin tells the story of Pope John driving
through the streets of Rome on a Saturday, when he suddenly ordered his car to
stop in front of Rome’s great synagogue. He got out of the car so he could
bless the Jews of Rome as they were leaving: an important symbolic act that
earned their gratitude.
“In doing this,” Rabbi Dalin observes, “he
began to transform the history of Catholic-Jewish relations in our time, with
initiatives inspired by his work on behalf of Jews during the holocaust.”
Pope John began by ordering the word
“perfidious” removed from the Good Friday intentions, but he knew a decisive
step to heal the rift between Jews and Catholics had to be part of the Council.
He could make small changes to liturgy, but more official and authoritative
actions were required for the Church to repudiate the charge of deicide and
He ordered Cardinal Augustin Bea to prepare an
official declaration of the attitude of the Church toward the Jews. Cardinal
Bea worked tirelessly to meet with Jewish leaders and begin a new era of dialogue.
The Pope, too, would meet with Jewish leaders,
greeting the first delegation from America with the words, “We are all sons of
the same Heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love
and its practice. I am Joseph, your brother.”
The result was the Declaration on the Relation
of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, better known by its first words: “Nostra Aetate,” meaning “In our time.”
Section 4 became the most famous part of the
document, transforming Catholic-Jewish relations in modern times. After
declaring our common patrimony, the document says that the death of Christ
“cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor
against the Jews of today” and that the Church condemned “hatred, persecutions,
displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Although Pope John would not live to see Nostra Aetate, his influence, and his
wartime experience, is clear in its final form. When he died on June 3, 1963,
Jews throughout the world joined Catholics in mourning.
Rabbi Dalin is emphatic about the central role
played by Pope John in Jewish-Catholic relations. “Twentieth and 21st-century
Jews will forever be indebted to Pope John XIII for his historic role in
bringing about Nostra Aetate. It
changed forever the relationship between Catholics and Jews.”
help during the Holocaust, his warmth and affection for the Jewish people, and
his determination to move the Church into a new era of Catholic-Jewish
relations are why, as Rabbi Dalin says, “he was known as the ‘Pope of the Jews.’”