Saturday, October 04, 2008

Pope John Paul II's compassion for Jews on display at Skirball

As a young boy in Poland before World War II, Karol Jozef Wojtyla possessed an uncommon warmth for an often reviled group of outsiders -- Jews.

Like most others in his hometown, Wojtyla was Catholic. But he counted Jewish children among his friends -- attending school with them, even playing goalie on their soccer team.

Wojtyla was speechless when one of them, a fellow actor in drama club, informed him that she was leaving to escape looming anti-Semitism.

Decades later, those early experiences and friendships would have a dramatic influence on Wojtyla -- the future Pope John Paul II.

The Jewish threads of John Paul II's life, as a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center shows, shaped much of his legacy during 26 years at the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul II was the first pope to pay an official visit to a synagogue, to formally recognize Israel and make an official trip to the Jewish state. He also was the first to pray at the Auschwitz concentration camp in his native Poland and to formally repent for the Catholic Church's failure to adequately recognize and react to the Holocaust, according to one of the scholars who assembled the exhibit.

"There is no single person in history who has done more to foster dialogue among religions than John Paul II," said James Buchanan, director of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University in Cincinnati and one of the creators of the exhibit "A Blessing to One Another." (The show was also produced by the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Cincinnati and the Shtetl Foundation in New York.)

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