Israel Update - Reflections Of John Paul

David Dolan
David Dolan

As I gaze out my window over the green Hinnon Valley toward the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's walled Old City, I can clearly see the yellow and white Vatican flag flying at half mast over several prominent Roman Catholic buildings. The lowered flags gently flutter in the cool early April breeze as I recall the visit of Pope John Paul II, which electrified this biblical city five years ago.

The Polish-born pontiff publicly professed that he considered his Holy Land pilgrimage the spiritual highlight of his long and impressive life. That was quite a revelation given that he toured every continent and dozens of nations during the 317 months that he presided over his international church. Yet he apparently realized that while there are nearly 200 sovereign countries on Earth - a good portion of them more verdant than Israel, better endowed with natural resources, containing far more rivers and lakes, significantly larger in landmass, etc. - there is still only one Promised Land.

Reporting for CBS radio news and other media outlets in March 2000, I spent quite a few hours discussing Catholic theology and practice with some of my visiting journalist colleagues. We especially focused on the most relevant question: How was the pope generally perceived in the world's only Jewish state? I was asked about this not because I was an expert on the Roman church, but because my staunchly Catholic upbringing - followed by two decades living in Israel - afforded me some extra insight on the topic.

While hopefully helping them to better report the compelling story before us, I made clear to my colleagues that I was no longer a professing member of John Paul's worldwide flock. I told them this was not because I failed to appreciate the positive things that flowed from my Catholic past, but because I came to a realization in my early adult years that my Holy Father was God alone. After that, I could not in good conscience address anyone on Earth by that hallowed title, whatever his position or merits.

Neither could I petition the Lord's humble Jewish mother in prayer, let alone consider her the "Queen of Heaven." John Paul proclaimed that the "Mother of God" - in her Polish incarnation as the Black Madonna, whose picture hangs in a church in his native land - had spared his life when an assassin's bullets struck him in 1981. But I could find absolutely no biblical basis for that colorful contention, not to mention for the very position of temporal power that the Vatican's centuries-old flag, throne room and crown proudly proclaim.

Still, I deeply appreciated the apparent fact that as popes go, John Paul was a breath of fresh air. He had obviously played a major role in the downfall of communism's oppressive rule over millions of people in Eastern Europe, to his everlasting credit. He also staunchly defended several biblically-based Catholic doctrines (many are culled directly from holy writ) in the face of a virtual flood of contrary opinions and actions.

Regarding the Jews, he bravely took the Second Vatican Council's "correction" of earlier anti-Jewish doctrines a step or three further. Seemingly recognizing that the Council's renunciation of "replacement theology" - which presumes that Christians have completely replaced the Jews as God's chosen covenant people - had not gone far enough, or at least not filtered down to the average Catholic in the pews or their parish priest, John Paul took the bull by the horns. No Israeli will forget that he was the first pontiff to address the Jewish people as "our elder brothers" and even more significantly, as "the people of the Covenant."

Yet it will not be his theology, either biblically accurate or questionable, or his exalted earthly position that will remain foremost in the hearts and minds of the Israeli public. It was the literal steps that the contemporary world's most famous spiritual leader took here in their ancient and modern homeland that will long echo the loudest.

With Israeli television broadcasting live, the frail John Paul - his shoulders bent forward due to the physical ravages of Parkinson's disease - walked slowly and solemnly to the Temple Mount's sacred Western Wall. There, he recited a short prayer before gingerly placing an historic, carefully crafted printed prayer into one of its ancient crevices. It read, "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations ... We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

The other memorable step was one that the Roman Catholic pontiff was not at all scheduled to make. As an Israeli choir sang the moving Hebrew song "Eli, Eli" ("My God, My God," which always brings to my mind the harrowing cry of Jesus on his Roman cross nearly 2,000 years ago in this city), John Paul sat silently in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. Next to him stood then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose maternal grandparents perished in the Treblinka death camp. Some 50 invited Holocaust survivors were also in the large hall, including 13 from Karol Vojtyla's hometown, Wadowice, Poland.

When the aging Catholic leader spotted one woman whom he apparently recognized, he broke all protocol by walking over and tenderly greeting her, instead of letting her ceremonially come to him as planned. That spontaneous televised gesture, which brought tears to many Israeli eyes, spoke volumes more than the words uttered by John Paul that day, expressing deep sorrow and regret for centuries of church-related anti-Semitism.

In fact, such compassion and humility should have been the hallmark of all the men who have ruled from Vatican City, given that they claim to be the direct successors of one of the Lord's most trusted Jewish cohorts, the Apostle Peter. If that had actually been the case, Hitler's mass slaughter would probably not have taken place at all in "Christian Europe," and there would be no Holocaust museum in Jerusalem today.

For the sake of everyone on Earth in these troubled times, we can only hope and pray that the next "Vicar of Christ" will be someone of equal or surpassing earnestness and humility, despite the earthly power and pomp still dominating the Vatican in Rome. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.