Jewish Museum Emphasizes Link With John Paul II

«A Blessing to One Another»

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By Hugh J. McNichol 

BALTIMORE, Maryland, SEPT. 3, 2010 ( An exhibit that opened this week at the Jewish Museum of Maryland explores the development of Pope John Paul II’s personal, spiritual and pastoral link with the Jewish people, from his earliest boyhood experiences in Wadowice, Poland, until his final days as Pope.

The exhibition, titled “A Blessing to One Another,” invites visitors to experience the people, events and social influences that formed Karol Wojtyła’s ideas and beliefs, which he ultimately shared with the world as John Paul II. The exhibit opened Thursday and continues through Dec. 26. 

Cardinal William Keeler, retired archbishop of Baltimore, who has been involved with the project from its earliest days, emphasized to ZENIT that the exhibition is «a marvelous experience of the faith of both the Jewish and Catholic peoples. In the exhibit, one can truly experience John Paul’s closeness to the Jewish people as both brothers in our monotheistic faith and the first respondents to the Word of God.»

The cardinal recalled having a discussion with the Polish Pontiff about his childhood experiences and his Jewish friends from Wadowice. According to Cardinal Keeler, the Pope was “energized” when speaking of his close friend Jerzy Kluger, a lifelong friend and former soccer companion. 

After losing touch with each other for 27 years, the two were reunited in Rome after Wojtyla’s episcopal ordination. With that reunion, they remained close friends for the rest of John Paul’s life, meeting on a regular basis at the Vatican.

Cardinal Keeler also noted that John Paul II and Benedict XVI both experienced the abhorrent crimes and atrocities of the Nazi regime, and together they both stand as global spiritual leaders in opposition to anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.

Living the message

Dr. James Buchanan, the curator for the exhibition, called the project “a continuing testimony to the legacy of John Paul’s sensitivities to the Jewish people.» 

«The exhibition is a great success,» he affirmed, «because it encapsulates the vision of John Paul’s relationship with the Jewish people and clearly shows the Catholic Church as living the message of Vatican II, through the leadership of Pope John Paul’s own insights and personal experiences.” 

The exhibit includes a re-creation of Karol Wojtyła’s childhood room, complete with a view of the Wadowice town square and renditions of Polish music and Catholic church bells that would have been part of the future Pope’s childhood experiences. 

As the exhibition develops, it utilizes tokens from various phases of John Paul’s life. Artifacts from Holocaust sites in Poland, such as a uniform from Auschwitz, accentuate the suffering John Paul shared with the Jewish people during the Second World War. However, there are significant pieces of John Paul’s personal effects enriching the exhibition: the biretta he received when made a member of the College of Cardinals, a white papal zucchetto, the walking stick used by the Pope while visiting the Western Wall, and handwritten notes Pope John Paul used when speaking at the concentration camp at Auschwitz. 

The final stage of the exhibit recalls events during John Paul’s papacy and how he drastically changed the relationship between Catholics and Jews by his spontaneous visit in 1986 to the main synagogue of Rome, the first such visit by a Pope. The papacy of John Paul saw also the Vatican’s official recognition of Israel as an independent state. As well, his pontificate was highlighted by his public apology to the Jewish people for all of the transgressions committed against them by the Catholic Church and finally, his prayer at the last remnants of the Great Temple at the Western Wall. The exhibition even includes a replica of the Western Wall into which visitors can place their own prayers.

Dramatic shift

The exhibition, which is sponsored in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s newspaper, The Catholic Review, and Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, not only traces the biographical journey of Karol Wojtyla and his intimate personal and spiritual relationships with the Jewish People, it signifies a dramatic shift in Judeo-Christian relations since the Second Vatican Council.  

The title of the exhibition comes from a letter written by the Holy Father in 1993, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In this letter, the Pope states, “As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.” 

The interactive exhibit gives testimony of the great legacy John Paul II provides for the Catholic Church in examining his lifelong pursuit of developing a deeper spiritual harmony between the Christian and Jewish faiths. It also is a milestone exhibition that provokes the visitor to contemplate the great heritage of faith shared by both Judeo-Christian traditions and how together the People of God can cultivate deeper appreciations of our common roots of faith into the 21st century.

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