ROME – The Vatican’s canonization ceremony of John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday has been christened “the day of the four popes.” It was the first time two pontiffs were proclaimed saints by a current pope (Francis) in the presence of a previous pope (Benedict XVI).

A Jewish delegation of 18 people with significant Israeli representation occupied seats of honor only 10 meters away from Pope Francis in front of Saint Peter’s basilica on the platform where he officiated. They faced the square where about 800,000 people had gathered from around the globe to pay homage to the two new Catholic saints.

“I was deeply impressed and amazed by the enthusiasm of these believers of all ages, many of whom had camped out overnight. In our generation, it is moving to witness such faith in God and a Divine plan” said Oded Wiener, director of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Other Israeli delegates included Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Zion Evrony, and Rabbi David Rosen, adviser to the Chief Rabbinate and the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs.

Rosen explained why he was participating personally at this Christian religious ceremony.

“Judaism teaches the importance of paying recognition to those who have done kindnesses for you. No two popes did more to transform the teaching of the Catholic Church toward Jews, Judaism and Israel from one of hostility to love and respect. I am paying respects to the memories of these two great heroes of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.”

Rosen said that although sainthood is not institutionally recognized by Judaism, “it is not exactly true to say ‘Jews do not believe in saints.’ We refer to our kedoshim, our ‘holy ones’ of the past, especially those who were martyred for their commitment to Judaism.

However, it is indeed a different concept from the term as used in Christianity.”

Abraham Skorka, the Argentinian rabbi who co-authored the book On Heaven and Earth with current Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, agrees that while the theological aspects of their sainthood cannot be shared by Jews, “our presence here is a sign and testimony of our recognition and gratitude for the positive actions of John XXIII and John Paul II for the Jews and for the entire world. Both had a special commitment toward the Jewish people.

Their papacies created a new reality in Jewish-Catholic relations, propelled by feelings of love and a desire for justice for all humanity.”

Evrony listed some events during these papacies that “paved the way for a new attitude of respect of the Catholic Church toward Judaism: John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council and spurred the writing and promulgation of the ‘Nostra Aetate’ document, which definitively delegitimized the absurd and infamous ‘deicide’ accusation against Jews and laid the foundations for a new mutually respectful relationship.

“During John Paul II’s pontificate”, the ambassador recalls, “diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel were established, and he was the first pope to visit Yad Vashem, to pray at the Western Wall, to pray for pardon for the Catholic Church’s past attitude, to pay an official visit to a synagogue.”

Other Jewish delegates were Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich; Rabbi Jay Rosenberg, president of the North American Board of Rabbis which includes all denominations of Judaism; Rabbi Pino Arbib of Rome’s Chief Rabbinate; and Giacomo Moscati, vice president of the Rome Jewish Community; plus nine rabbinical and community representatives of Argentinian Jewry, including rabbis Epel and Bergman.

The public embrace between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI was noted by Rabbi Rosen as “moving, and symbolic of the continuity of the new path undertaken by the Catholic Church.”

This aspect will be examined on Monday by Vatican and Israeli and Diaspora authorities at an important conference organized by the Saint Egidio community titled “From John XXIII to Francis – Jews and Christians in dialogue.”

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