Oded Ben Hur surmised that Karol Wojtyla was permanently affected by the Nazi occupation of his native Poland and by the persecution and murder of his Jewish friends.
"One could say it was an open wound that he carried in his heart his whole life," Ben Hur observed.
The comment by Ben Hur, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, suggests how much Wojtyla — who became Pope John Paul II in 1978 — did to heal the wound he and his Jewish compatriots sustained. Indeed, the ambassador’s post is the direct result of the Holy See’s establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1993 during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
Various histories suggest that several factors — including disputes over the political status of Jerusalem and the Vatican’s wish not to antagonize Arab nations — delayed recognition of Israel for decades. Even before the Holy See recognized Israel, however, such leaders as Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II made positive statements about Israel that set the stage for full relations.
To highlight the meaning to Israel of Vatican recognition, he contrasted it to recent statements by the president of Iran, calling for Israel’s destruction. Some nations still do not recognize the right of Israel to exist, he said. Hence, Israelis valued and welcomed Pope John Paul II’s 2000 visit to Israel and his meeting with Israel’s president.
Yet Ben Hur had no problem with such headlines about Israel as those printed in 2000 telling of Pope John Paul II’s visit there and his meeting with Israel’s president.
"This is a gesture that fully recognized the presidency of Israel in the state of Israel," Ben Hur said.
In 2005, the government Ben Hur represents published a booklet commemorating "Milestones in Israel-Holy See Relations." The booklet was released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate ("Declaration on the Relation of the Roman Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions"). The Vatican II document decried anti-Semitism and was the fruit of labor begun by Pope John XXIII, who used his office as a Vatican diplomat during World War II to save thousands of Jews, Ben Hur noted.
"Milestones in Israel-Holy See Relations" also points out the significance of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See.
"The Fundamental Agreement extends the theological advances of Nostra Aetate into the political realm. … The Agreement signifies a historic step in the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish People," the booklet observes.
It also highlights Pope John Paul II’s speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, during which the pope, speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church, said he was "deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."
Ben Hur added that he welcomed the election of Pope Benedict XVI, noting that the new pope has made it clear to him that good relations with Israel are a priority.
Father Joseph Brennan, a longtime leader in Rochester-area Jewish-Catholic relations, said he, too, welcomed the improvement in relations between the Holy See and Israel.
"The lack of Vatican recognition of the State of Israel was a huge barrier to better understanding between Jews and Catholics," he said in an interview after the mission members returned home. "Jews simply could not understand why the Vatican did not make this step earlier. That was the one question which I was always asked when I was addressing Jewish groups — up until the signing of the (Fundamental Agreement) in 1993."