A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & The Jewish People
Closing Interfaith Service
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Just over three months ago, we gathered in prayer and reflection on the sacred day set aside by the United States Congress to commemorate the Jewish Holocaust. Later that afternoon, we celebrated the value of interfaith dialogue with a stimulating and witty program featuring Rabbi Howard Hirsch and the Most Reverend Richard Hanifen, both representing the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Colorado Springs. And we were privileged that day also to open in the beautiful Franco Library and Learning Center the historic exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.”
On behalf of the entire Alvernia University community, I am honored again today to welcome many esteemed guests to campus, some of whom are participating in today’s observance. Joining us for this ceremony and representing Bishop Cullen is Reverend John S. Mraz, Director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the diocese of Allentown, along with Alvernia’s own Rabbi Alan Weitzman and others listed in your program.
My family and I were privileged to visit this exhibit several years ago at its home at Xavier University in Cincinnati, a few weeks before its official opening, with my dear friend, Mike Graham, Xavier’s president and—as some will recall—the memorable homilist at the interfaith service that accompanied my inauguration as Alvernia’s president. The exhibit made a lasting impression, but neither I nor any of us at Alvernia could have anticipated the powerful impact that would come from bringing the Blessing exhibit to our campus. By the time it closes on Thursday, it will have attracted well over 3,000 visitors. Just last week, Alvernia and Reading were mentioned in the Jerusalem Post, when the prayers gathered here in recent weeks were brought to the Wall in Jerusalem.
Yet the impact, as we know well, extends far beyond any simple head count. Today, at the end of our ceremony, we will recognize the many individuals and organizations that helped make this experience possible. But please allow me now to recognize Ginny Hand and the staff of Alvernia’s Holleran Center for Community Engagement for their dedication and tireless efforts. As they would be the first to say, it has been a privilege for Alvernia University to host this exhibit and, in so doing, to emphasize our commitment to be a regional center for interfaith and intercultural dialogue, promoting mutual respect and understanding among women and men of good will. Mindful of our Franciscan tradition, we look forward in the months ahead to building on the Blessing exhibit and our earlier interfaith gatherings, and we look forward to working with the Jewish Federation, the Islamic Center, the Berks Council of Churches, the diocesan office, and other organizations and individuals.
Each of us will carry with us from this exhibit the anecdotes we found especially moving and compelling, the lessons that moved us spiritually and intellectually, the writings or pictures of Karol Wojtyla that struck us most forcefully. One prominent CEO put it this way in an e-mail to me the day after touring the exhibit:
What a profound and moving story the Blessing exhibit provides. On more than one occasion I was deeply touched by the love, kindness, vision, and compassion of Pope John Paul II and Jerzey Kluger. It’s one thing to have those values as a philosophy, it’s another to talk about it, and yet another to live it. They not only had all three, butlived their values in spite of persecution. What incredible gifts of God they were to all of us.
The Blessing exhibit challenges us to remember with reverence those who suffered and perished. It is at the same time an extraordinary testament to moral courage and a reminder of the warning from Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel, that “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Reflecting on history, painful and inspirational, takes on special meaning when we apply its lessons. Contemplating the legacy of the Holocaust does indeed remind us of that great lesson about individual responsibility: that each of us has the choice to act or not to act, and that there are consequences to both our decisions and our indecision.
We might look here to the words of the Pope during his millennial pilgrimage to Israel and to Yad Vashem to remind us of the need for both contemplation and action: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel a need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. . . . We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims . . . ”
Beyond its historical power and these profound lessons, the exhibit comes alive for us, does it not, in the very human truth that love and deep friendship can lessen the trauma of profound loss and overcome the barriers of time and distance. The premature deaths of Karol’s entire immediate family, the murder of all women in Jerzy’s family, the virtuous and respectful example of their fathers all culminate in a vision of shalom that takes our breath away. Jerzy, the Jewish Holocaust survivor representing Lolek, his childhood companion and now the newly installed Pope at a Holocaust memorial service in their native Poland. A vigorous John Paul making two transformational journeys: healing and empowering his countrymen during a visit home to Krakow and Auschwitz and later crossing his city to embrace the Chief Rabbi and pray together in the Great Synagogue in Rome. An elderly frail pilgrim pope expressing respect for the Jewish people, his “dear elder brothers” and repentance for what he called the “failures” of his Church at Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall. Rabbi David Rosen, in his extended reflection on Nostra Aetate, the landmark 1965 document from the Second Vatican Council, and the legacy of an earlier prioneer, Pope John XXIII, rightly notes that even those unfamiliar with this and other prophetic Church documents of the last four decades understood the symbolic importance of a pope paying his respects in the great Roman synagogue and throughout his historic visit to Israel in 2000.
One final memory of this exhibit from its last panels has special meaning here at Alvernia: the choice of Assisi, the home of the Franciscan movement, as the gathering place for world religious leaders. As a Franciscan University, rooted in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and guided by the example of St. Francis of Assisi, we are called to respect the dignity of the human person, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, social and economic status or any other differentiating characteristic. We are called not simply to tolerate our differences but to embrace them and to see them as part of the rich mosaic of our shared humanity.
So let the experience of this exhibit provide spiritual inspiration for us in our own time and in our own lives. Let us confront each in our own way, the prejudices and narrowness that form barriers among us as individuals, as a society, as a global community, as a campus. Let us be challenged by the moral courage of John Paul II, by his generosity of spirit, and by his humble petition for forgiveness. Let us be inspired by his vision of brotherhood, respect, and loving unity and resolve to build a more humane and just world. May we indeed be, in all that we are and all that we do, a “blessing on one another.”