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Saintly popes mended Catholic-Jewish relations

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope John XXIII and John Paul II helped change nearly 2,000 years of Catholic antagonism toward Jews with their personal and professional words and deeds. Here is a look at what they did, and why it matters.

HOLOCAUST UP CLOSE

Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was the Vatican's envoy to Greece and Turkey during World War II and saw the Holocaust up close. He is credited with having saved tens of thousands of Jews fleeing from Eastern Europe by arranging for exit visas and forging birth certificates.

John Paul, born Karol Wojtyla, grew up in Wadowice, Poland, a town near Krakow and not far from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Wadowice was known for its large Jewish population, and young Wojtyla had many Jewish classmates. He remained a lifelong friend with one, Jerzy Kluger, who survived the Holocaust while most of his family perished, and settled in Rome after the war. Kluger was a frequent guest at the pope's dinner table.

OUTREACH AS POPES

One of the most important documents to emerge from the Second Vatican Council that John XXIII called was "Nostra Aetate." The statement "In Our Time" revolutionized the church's relations with Jews by saying Christ's death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole at the time or today. It further stated that Jews should not be considered rejected by God and decried all forms of anti-Semitism.

The Vatican under John approved the removal, from the Good Friday prayer service, of the adjective "perfidious" to describe the Jews.

John Paul, who attended Vatican II as an expert, was a pope of firsts concerning Catholic-Jewish relations: He was the first pope to visit a synagogue (and the first to visit a Muslim house of worship), and oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994.

In planning the visit to the Rome synagogue, John Paul befriend the then chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, with whom he remained friends and who is one of the few people mentioned by name in John Paul's final testament. It was during the synagogue visit that John Paul first publicly said Jews were Christians' "elder brothers" in the faith.

JOHN PAUL'S TRIPS

—1979: Visits Auschwitz and famously says: "It is not possible to pass by this inscription with indifference."

—1986: Visits Rome synagogue.

—2000: Visits Israel, inserts note in Jerusalem's Western Wall expressing deep sadness for the wrongs done to Jews by Christians.

AND FRANCIS?

Pope Francis has taken the lead from both men. His personal friendship with the Jewish community in his native Argentina is well-known, as is his commitment to official interfaith dialogue. When a group of Argentine rabbis visited recently, he had the Vatican hotel kitchen kosherized so a kosher meal could be cooked on the premises for his guests. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio presided over an annual gathering of Catholics, Jews and Protestants to mark Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led mob violence in 1938 when about 1,000 Jewish synagogues were burned and thousands of Jews were forced into concentration camps, launching the genocide that killed 6 million Jews.

AND THE JEWISH RESPONSE TO THE CANONIZATIONS?

Jewish groups will form the biggest interfaith delegation for the canonization ceremony in a sign of their appreciation for what John and John Paul did for Catholic-Jewish relations.

—"Jews will always remember Pope John XXIII as the animating force behind the Vatican II Council that changed the way Catholics looked at other faiths, especially Judaism. The 'Nostra Aetate' document that ensued from it pulled the plug on centuries of theological anti-Semitism and put relationships between Christians and Jews on a new footing of mutual respect," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Affairs.

—"Pope John Paul II termed the theory of 'Nostra Aetate' into dramatic proactive," noted Rabbi Abraham Cooper the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, citing the historic visit to Rome's synagogue, his use of the term "elder brother," his establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and his visit to the Western Wall. The latter, he said, "was a gesture that will never be forgotten."

—"It is no exaggeration to say that in terms of the Christian-Jewish relationship, these great men took us from darkness to light; from pain to joy, and from alienation to brotherhood," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of interfaith affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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