Although Pope Paul VI had already taken decisive steps towards rapprochement with Judaism, the engagement in this issue by the leadership of the Catholic Universal Church was only really apprehended by the wider public in the form of Pope John Paul II. His passionate endeavours for Jewish–Christian dialogue surely have their roots initially in his personal biography. Karol Wojtyla grew up in the small Polish town of Wadowice which consisted to at least one quarter of Jewish. Since everyday contact and friendship with Jews was taken for granted already in his childhood it was for him as Pope an important concern to maintain his friendship with a Jewish school friend, and to intensify the bonds of friendship with Judaism in general.
Beyond that, John Paul was able to give visible expression to his concern for reconciliation with Judaism through grand public gestures. Already in the first year of his pontificate on 7 June 1979 he visited the former concentration camp of Auschwitz–Birkenau, where in front of the memorial stone with its Hebrew inscription he recalled the victims of the Shoah in a particular manner with the moving words: “This inscription awakens the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This People draws its origin from Abraham, our Father in faith (cf. Rom 4:12) as was expressed by Paul of Tarsus. The very People that received from God the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.” Even more attention was paid by the public media to the visit by Pope John Paul II to the Roman synagogue on 13 April 1986, which is also accorded special significance because there was a Jewish community in Rome long before the Christian faith was brought to Rome. The historical significance of this event however is based above all on the fact that it was the first time in history the Bishop of Rome has visited a synagogue, to bear testimony to his respect for Judaism before the whole world. The gesture of the embrace of the Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and Pope John Paul II remains an indelible memory.
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