On April 27, 2014, the late popes John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized by the incumbent Pope Francis. Quite symbolically, this ceremony took place one day before the commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.
Quite remarkable is that the fact that Pope Francis happens to be one of the very first members of the Wallenberg Foundation, which he joined at the time he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
To be sure, the canonization is an internal decision of the Catholic Church and we don’t intend to dwell on the complex theological issues surrounding it. Having said so, we would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the figure of Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) who perhaps is less known to the Israeli public than John Paul II, and probably so because he passed away over four decades ago. This fact notwithstanding, we believe that Roncalli deserves our special attention for his unique legacy and for his special relationship to the Jewish people.
In the dark years of the Shoah, as the Apostolic delegate in Istanbul, Roncalli went out of his way to save as many Jews as possible. His door was always open to the emissaries of Jewish Palestine (Chaim Barlas was his main interlocutor) and he interceded before King Boris of Bulgaria and the Slovakian leadership in favor of the Jews of those countries. He also allowed the use of the Vatican diplomatic courier to convey vital immigration documents provided by the Jewish Agency to his colleague, the Nuncio in Budapest, Monsignor Angelo Rotta, for further distribution to the beleaguered Jewish community in the Hungarian capital.
Back in 2011, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation submitted a massive file (the Roncalli Dossier) to Yad Vashem, with a strong petition and recommendation to bestow upon him the title of Righteous among the Nations.
After the war, as Nuncio in Paris, Roncalli played an interested role in relation to the establishment of the Jewish state.
BACK IN 1947, before the fateful UN 181 resolution (the partition plan), Moshe Shertok (Sharet) was deeply worried that the Vatican would cast a negative influence upon the Latin American countries who were inclined to favor the partition plan. Shertok instructed Sneh to contact Vatican leaders in order to ask them to refrain from talking the Latin American countries out of their original intention.
Sneh met with Roncalli, and the latter promised him to help to the best of his abilities. In fact, Roncalli arranged a last-minute meeting between Sneh and the then Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Domenico Tardini, and Roncalli even especially traveled to Rome to be close to Sneh and hear his report of the meeting.
Sneh met Tardini and it turned out that he had managed to convince his interlocutor to refrain from any interference. Eventually, most Latin American states voted for the partition plan, paving the way to the establishment of the State of Israel.
So in this case too, Roncalli showed once more his allegiance to the Jewish people.
Roncalli’s courage and humanism continued during his papacy. In 1961, he commissioned the drafting of the revolutionary Decretum de Judaeis (“Decree on the Jews”) which served as a basis to Nostra Aetate (Our Age), a declaration of the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions, which was promulgated in 1965 by his successor, Pope Paul VI, after Roncalli’s death.
The Decree on the Jews is a complex document but among other considerations, it stipulates that Jews who lived during Jesus’s era, let alone future generations of Jews, cannot be blamed for his death. In addition, Pope John XXIII instructed that an offensive remark about Jews (who were portrayed as “perfidious”) be erased from the Good Friday prayer.
For many years now, our Foundation has been working relentlessly to honor Roncalli and to spread his magnificent legacy. We promoted the naming of streets, schools and a kindergarten after him, the erection of busts and monuments, the creation of educational programs and so forth.
Next May 13, the Knesset will hold a special session devoted to Pope John XXIII and we shall be participating, together with our good friends Yair Zaban, Rabbi David Rosen and Professor Dina Porat.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a remarkable human being – a role model for the young generations; a noble and modest man who taught us the meaning of love and fraternity.
We hope that he will get the recognition he deserves.
Baruch Tenembaum is the founder and Eduardo Eurnekian the chairman of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.