This past Sunday, in a large and elegantly-appointed room in the heart of Krakow, Poland, I found myself doing something I never imagined I would do: meeting with the pope.
A group of a dozen or so Jews, headed by Poland’s inimitable chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was given the opportunity to confer with the head of the Catholic Church, who just two days previously had paid a highly-publicized visit to the Auschwitz death camp.
After gathering outside the residence of the archbishop in an afternoon downpour, we were led through a grand courtyard and taken inside a building with a palatial interior.
Portraits of various church figures adorned the walls, appearing to stare with a tinge of astonishment as this cluster of kippa-clad Jews made its way through the premises.
While the pontiff stood in an adjacent room, waving out the window to a crowd of adoring Poles, the members of our entourage prepared themselves, getting into formation like a receiving line at a wedding or bar mitzva.
Quietly, each of us gathered our thoughts, realizing we would have just a few moments to exchange words with Pope Francis. What message, I thought to myself, should I try to convey? After all, for any Jew with even a modicum of historical consciousness, meeting the pope is an experience that engenders a wide range of conflicting emotions.
For centuries, the quiet of the European continent was punctuated by endless screams, as countless Jews were persecuted, tortured, forcibly converted and slaughtered, often in the name of the Catholic Church and with its active encouragement, blessing and support.
There was Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), who went out of his way to impose various restrictions on Jews, and who infamously introduced the idea of forcing them to wear a distinctive badge on their garments, a measure adopted more than 700 years later by Germany’s Nazi regime.
His successor, Innocent IV, ordered the burning of the Talmud in the mid-13th century, as did Pope Julius III in 1553.
Some popes, such as Gregory XIII in the 16th century, required Jews to attend weekly sermons aimed at converting them, while others expelled Jews from the papal realms, censored Jewish religious works and barred them from various professions.
And there were men such as Pope Pius VI (1775-1800), who sought to take anti-Semitism to new levels by issuing edicts that did not allow Jews to put up tombstones in Jewish cemeteries and forbade renovating or remodeling synagogues.
Of course, there were also pontiffs who were more kindly disposed to the Jews, such as the late John Paul II, but the Church’s long and tortured legacy of anti-Semitism and blood libels, the Inquisition and the Crusades, has left an indelible and ghastly mark on the institution, one that can never be forgotten or forgiven.
Even in the modern era, with all the advances that have taken place in Catholic-Jewish relations, there is still much that the Church has to answer for, ranging from the shameful behavior of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust to the Vatican’s recent decision to recognize the so-called “state of Palestine.”
Indeed, throughout Europe there are countless Jewish schools and synagogues that were confiscated by the Vatican over the centuries and transformed into churches or monasteries, which justice demands be returned to the Jewish people. Or how about the priceless Jewish manuscripts which the Catholic Church seized over the past 1,500 years?
As these and other thoughts surged through my mind, I saw that Pope Francis was working his way down the line of visitors.
Rabbi Avi Baumol, who serves as an emissary to Poland of Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, presented the pontiff with a book he had authored on the meaning of the Psalms. And then Jonathan Ornstein, the dynamic head of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, praised Francis for his firm stand against intolerance.
Before I knew it, the pope was standing right in front of me. Normally, protocol requires that a person meeting the pope must bow, kiss his hand and refer to him as “Holy Father.” But these are all forbidden by Jewish law, and I had resolved to refrain from doing so, as had other members of our group. Papal officials are well aware of the situation, and do not make an issue of it.
Next, as I looked deeply into the pope’s eyes, I heard Poland’s chief rabbi introduce me to him and describe my work with Shavei Israel, which helps lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.
Francis appeared to be a kindly person, a man without guile who is both humane and caring, and I proceeded to briefly discuss with him how a growing number of young Poles are rediscovering their Jewish roots, which their forbears had hidden after the horrors of the Holocaust.
For some reason, I felt it was important for him to know that the Jewish people are indestructible, and to hear that the crematoria he had seen at Auschwitz-Birkenau did not succeed in incinerating the Jewish spirit.
Francis listened intently, nodded his head and smiled as though pleased by what I had said, and then did something that caught me completely off-guard. He asked me to pray for him, and I later found out he had made the same request of other Jews in attendance.
On the flight back to Israel, I thought long and hard about the experience. For so many generations, Jews had been forced to live in the shadow of the Catholic Church and those who stood at its head, fearful of what they might do to our people. But the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 changed all that, forever altering the equation.
I felt blessed to live in a generation when a Jew can speak to the pope not as a supplicant pleading for mercy, but rather with his head held high, like a proud son of Israel.
For despite everything the Church had done to us throughout the centuries, the Jews had survived and returned to our Land, once again worshiping the Creator freely in Jerusalem.
If that isn’t proof that we are the eternal people, what is?