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My Encounter with the Pope

June 25, 2009 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Was I wrong at that moment to believe it's at last possible to cast off centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and religious intolerance?

How does a rabbi feel when he meets the pope?

As a 10th-generation rabbi who has spent a lifetime teaching Torah to Jews, that's something I thought was about as likely to happen to me as winning a gold medal at the Olympics. My world is the ivory tower of Jewish academia, not the Vatican. The people I'm used to seeing with yarmulkes on their heads are congregants, not cardinals. The holy city I most often visit isn't Rome but Jerusalem.

But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and Divine providence put me together not just with one pope but with two.

On Christmas and Easter my parents knew they could not dare be out in the street.

Before I share with you the circumstances of these remarkable meetings, a little personal background is important. My parents came from Poland, and when I was a child they would tell me about their early lives there. On Christmas and Easter they knew they could not dare be out in the street. Their church-going neighbors would search for any of the Jewish "Christ killers" who their priest had impressed upon them in his sermon were guilty of killing their Lord. Anti-Semitic attacks were almost everyday occurrences, the expected price that Jews understood they had to pay for residence in a non-Jewish land. It's sad to say but for Jews, Christians were the villains -- because we were constantly victims.

If my parents ever wondered whether a time might come when this would all change, the Holocaust put an end to whatever optimism they dared to allow themselves. No, they concluded, and constantly reinforced in their admonitions to my siblings and to me. The rift between us and "them," as they saw it, was unbridgeable. Only a fool, they never failed to tell us, would deny the lesson of so many centuries.

So in my mind, the pope became the general of an opposing army. Nothing personal, mind you, but surely sufficient to make me suspicious of any gesture on his part to improve our relationship.

It was with this mindset that I fortuitously became involved with a gentleman who had connections with the Vatican and offered to help when I informed him that there were many precious Jewish items in the hands of the church that we would love to bring back to their original owners. With his assistance and unbelievable good fortune we were invited to the Vatican Library to view some extremely precious manuscripts and initiate plans to bring some of them out on exhibit in Israel.

And then there was one more remarkable thing that happened. It explains what a nice Jewish septuagenarian like me was doing in the Apostolic Palace standing before the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in the week before what proved to be his final illness.

Pope John Paul II was a different kind of pope. With all of my mistrust ingrained since my youth I had to attach significant meaning to the things I learnt about this spiritual leader of others who ironically enough was born in Poland, not far from my ancestors. I discovered that he was someone sensitive enough when he assumed the papacy to make one of his very first acts a visit to Auschwitz to in order express remorse at the fate of the 6 million victims.

More, he became the first pope since Saint Peter to visit a synagogue. He journeyed to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and left an inscribed message within one of its crevices asking for forgiveness for the sins Christianity committed against the Jews throughout the centuries. He denounced anti-Semitism as a "sin against God and humanity." He normalized diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. He epitomized love, reconciliation and the healing of ancient wounds.

Pope John Paul II wanted a blessing from the spiritual leaders of the people who had for so long been the victims of its misplaced, virulent hatred.

And because he had a profound feeling of affection for Jews, he made an amazing decision. Realizing his advanced age he made a personal and private request that was relayed to me. Pope John Paul II indicated that he would like to receive a blessing -- a blessing from the spiritual leaders of the people who had for so long been the victims of its misplaced, virulent hatred. That is how I came to be a part of 150 rabbis and cantors who went to meet with the pope and fulfill his request.

At this historic moment three of us stepped forward to personally recite a blessing. It was then that I uttered the words recorded in the Talmud for a time when a Jew meets a great leader of the nations of the world: "We bless You O Lord for having granted of Your glory to Your creations."

Was I wrong at that moment to believe it's at last possible to cast off centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding and religious intolerance?

What went through my mind?

I heard the past speaking to me. I don't know how it was possible for time to become so compressed that in those few moments, I could clearly make out so many conversations in my mind, all of them vying for my attention, all of them claiming my conviction. Some were filled with anger. Some were disbelieving. Some advised caution. Some were overcome with joyous emotion. All were battling for my agreement. It was simply too difficult for me to decide, too momentous a moment for me to come to any conclusion.

But with all the voices fighting to be heard within me one seemed most recognizable. I could swear that in the Vatican itself I heard my father, of blessed memory, whisper in my ear," Perhaps. Perhaps."

Not too long after that I was invited to be a member of the group that accompanied Pope Benedict, newly appointed after the death of John Paul II, when as one of the first acts of his papacy he too went to Auschwitz to pray, to request forgiveness, and to vow that civilized mankind would never again permit an atrocity of this horrendous magnitude to every again occur. I know that this pope is a German whose biography leaves us with some unanswered questions. I know that he has committed some serious errors of judgment in his response to Holocaust deniers within his own faith. And yet I saw him at Auschwitz. I heard his words. I spoke with him. I know that he, too, in his visit to New York last year chose to go to a synagogue to make clear his warm feelings towards Jews.

Pope Benedict was in Israel last week. He too has placed a prayer in the wall. He too has gone to the memorial for those who perished during the Holocaust. For some he didn't say enough and he didn't do enough. For others there is still the lingering and strong suspicion that he is the head of an organization that forever stands in opposition to our survival, at the very least theologically.

Only time will tell whether we may place our trust in the sincerity of these new gestures of friendship. But I would like to believe, seeing things with my own eyes that I know my parents and grandparents would never have deemed possible, that it is not too far-fetched and too naive to respond to these apparent attempts at reconciliation, with one word: "Perhaps. Perhaps."


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