The Pope, the bridge with the Jews and Israel
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Pope John Paul II will forever be remembered, among so many other things, as the Supreme Pontiff who both brought the relationship of the Church with the Jewish people to a whole new level, and who established diplomatic relations, and signed treaties, with the State of Israel.
The impact of the Holy Father on the perception that Jews have of the Church, and on the popular imagination, is best illustrated by the public opinion polls published towards the end of his 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land: A great majority of Israelis who were interviewed declared John Paul II their favourite candidate for Chief Rabbi of Israel!
In just a very few days of presence on Israel's television screens, this particular Vicar of Christ completely transformed the whole approach that the majority of the Israeli public have towards the Church and to her leaders. John Paul II, in effect, introduced the Israeli public to a whole new concept of faith and religion. In him, the Israeli secular majority saw something new: a religious leader who was not preaching nationalism, extremism, xenophobia, violent expansion, or theocratic clericalism, but universal charity, justice, mercy, inclusion, equality, liberty for all.
Earlier, of course, in 1993, the Pope had signed the Fundamental Agreement with the State of Israel, and in 1994, had on that basis established full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. Thus, 46 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, a systematic effort was begun to secure the legal position of the Catholic Church in the territory of the State of Israel.
The signing of the treaties, on the one hand, and the enormous good will generated by the Pope's personal presence, on the other hand, together laid a solid foundation for the new relationship between the Church and Israel, and offered great hope for the future security and effectiveness of the Catholic Church in the Jewish State.
With John Paul II being no more, the great work that he began still remains to be completed. For the extraordinary achievements of his personal presence in Israel - in 2000 - to be rendered permanently effective, the Church still has to be properly "implanted" within Hebrew-speaking Israel through a visible, distinct ecclesial subject, capable of engaging with all levels of society, in their own language, and from within their own culture.
The Church still has to show the Jewish people in Israel that she is present "within" and "among" them, as she is normally present "within" and "among" every nation and people.
Also, on the level of law and institutions, the Fundamental Agreement with Israel is still waiting to be put into effect. In its twelfth year now, it has still not been incorporated into Israeli law.
Moreover, the Fundamental Agreement was left incomplete on crucially important matters, namely the fiscal relationship of the Church to the State, and the security of the Church's religious property. Negotiations on these matters are still continuing at the time of the Holy Father's death.
Alas, he did not have the satisfaction of seeing his initiatives come to fruition completely, in this regard. In agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel before a solution of some of the most basic practical questions regarding the security of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, John Paul II acted with tremendous courage and foresight. He made an act of confidence in the future.
Above all, and specifically, he chose to place exceptional, extraordinary trust, in the other side to these negotiations. He trusted that the young State of Israel, having been granted full recognition and diplomatic relations, will respond, on its part, with full recognition of the rights and freedoms acquired by the Church in the Holy Land over many centuries.
At the time of John Paul II's death, the Church is still waiting - confidently - for this response. It is now for the State of Israel to confirm that John Paul II's truly extraordinary trust was indeed justified.
Israel, for its part, could do nothing more significant to honour the memory of this greatest friend of the Jewish People than to implement fully the Fundamental Agreement, his legacy.
* Fr. David Maria A. Jaeger, an Israeli, Franciscan friar and lawyer. He has been a member of the Vatican Delegation who negotiated, on behalf of John Paul II, the Fundamental Agreement with the State of Israel, signed on December 3rd 1993.