Rabbi remembers beatified pope

From The Jewish Standard

by HEATHER ROBINSON

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Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Englewood recalls that in 2005, when Pope John Paul II was ailing, he and a group of other clergy surrounded the frail pope.

“We said, ‘Would you mind if we say a prayer?’ and [the pope] said, ‘That would be wonderful,’’” Bemporad recalled in an interview Monday with the Jewish Standard.

Continuing his recollection, Bemporad added, “We said, ‘How about the priestly blessing [from the Book of Numbers]?’”

The pope agreed, whereupon the group surrounded and blessed him.

“He was very sick, but you could see in his eyes he was at home,” Bemporad recalled.

Bemporad, 77, is the primary author of the historic Prague Accord, which marked the first time the Vatican asked for forgiveness for acts of anti-Semitism. Bemporad met eight times with John Paul II, who was beatified last Sunday before an estimated 1 million worshippers at the Vatican.

He considers the late pope to have been extraordinarily dedicated to outreach to people of other faiths, and feels he had a unique connection to Jewish people.

Bemporad has served as director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt for many years and is also director of the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome.

“In 1990,” Bemporad recalled, “two or three of us [rabbis] were meeting with [the pope] and he said the whole intellectual life of Poland [had been] Jewish before the Holocaust.” In particular, Bemporad added, the murder of his “teachers, some of whom were Jews, left him so upset that he resolved if he could do something about improving [Catholic-Jewish relations], he would.”

The issue of anti-Semitism in church doctrine was on his own mind, Bemporad recalls, during his early contacts with the Vatican, and helped to spur his career as an advocate of interfaith dialogue.

Bemporad’s first meeting there took place in 1960 when, as a newly ordained Reform rabbi and Fulbright fellow, he met with Pope John XXIII to discuss hunger issues.

Bemporad says he asked that pontiff about the Church’s role in the destruction of European Jewry, specifically certain religious teachings regarding Jews.

“I went there with the mentality most Jews have — somewhat hostile,” said Bemporad. “He actually indicated he’d do something.”

During the years that followed, John XXIII did initiate some changes to church doctrine, including striking the word “perfidious” from the Good Friday service (The word had preceded the word “Jews” and meant “without faith,” according to Bemporad.) Pope John XXIII also instituted the Vatican Council, commonly known as ‘Vatican II,’ to reconsider attitudes toward non-Christians and bring the Church up to date in other areas.

But it was Pope John Paul II, Bemporad points out, who is credited with being the first pope to enter a synagogue as well as with authorizing a representative of the Church to apologize for the role it played in fomenting anti-Semitism.

“One thing that characterized this pope was his outreach to the world,” Bemporad told the Standard. “So as a result, maybe it was not unusual you had one and a half million people attending the beatification, and four million people attending his funeral.”

Bemporad added that wherever John Paul II traveled “he made a point of meeting with the organized Jewish community.”

True progress in interfaith understanding requires mutuality, Bemporad believes — something he thinks Pope John Paul II put into practice. “It’s true there was a great deal of anti-Semitism [in the Catholic Church], but there was also the opposite,” said Bemporad. “It made me understand how important interfaith understanding is.”

Regarding the suitability of John Paul II’s beatification, which is a step on the path toward Catholic sainthood, Bemporad said that because he is not a Catholic, he cannot comment.

“Why certain individuals are beatified is strictly a Catholic issue,” he said. “We [Jews] don’t have saints so we don’t understand it.”

Bemporad added, “He seemed like a godly person.”

On a lighter note, Bemporad shared a story about how, following the pope’s historic visit to a synagogue in 1986, while Bemporad was serving as the president of Temple Israel in Lawrence, Long Island, the middle-aged synagogue president informed Bemporad he had received a chemistry set from his elderly mother.

“His mother told him, ‘Remember when you were a boy, how you wanted a chemistry set?’” Bemporad recalled. “The man said ‘Yes, but I’m a grown man, and this is for a 10-year-old.’ His mother said, ‘I always told you, ‘You’ll get a chemistry set when the pope goes to shul.’”

This entry was written by and posted on May 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm and filed under Features.