Pope John Paul II changed the course of Catholic-Jewish relations on April 6, 1993, when, on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, he uttered, “As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world.
“This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another.”
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” a multimedia exhibit that began in 2005 at Xavier University in Cincinnati, has drawn tens of thousands as it moved to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, as well as other major cities. Now at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, through Jan. 3, “A Blessing to One Another” transports visitors back to John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, Poland, then carries them through four major periods in his life. Each focuses on his friendship and relationship with the Jewish people, including his historic visit to the Holy Land in 2000, and how it has shaped Catholic-Jewish relations.
Rabbi Abie Ingber, one of the exhibit’s co-creators, describes it being “like a book you walk through and you’re part of the story.” In fact, the multimedia, multisensory de--sign starts visitors at an 8-foot-by-20-foot wall taken from an old postcard that pictures the Wadowice street and square young Karol Wojtyla saw every day from his bedroom window.
The actual church bell he heard is one among many sounds visitors listen to. Soundscapes include not only John Paul II’s words, but video monitors playing interviews specifically done for this exhibit with those who knew him, including those who grew up with him, especially his lifelong, very close friend Jerzy Kluger.
“We have the only lengthy interview with Jerzy,” says James Buchanan, co-creator of the exhibit and director of Xavier’s Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. Young Karol shared meals in the Kluger home and visited the town’s synagogue with his friend. Kluger later attended the first private audience held by newly elected Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Hundreds of pictures (some forming 8-foot-high walls), text panels, quotations from John Paul II’s writings, videos and artifacts from museums, private collections and the Vatican tell the story. Among many displays are a replica of the Krakow ghetto gate, artifacts of the Holocaust, a white zucchetto (skullcap) with John Paul’s initials, which he wore during his visit to Israel in 2000, and the walking staff he used going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“All these elements contributed and shaped John Paul II’s deep abiding respect for the Jewish people and allowed him to maintain a constant dialogue with them,” Auxiliary Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese said in his observations during the exhibit’s opening day in Houston.
Every part of this multisensory exhibit touches visitors. Buchanan describes how many find the Holocaust Memorial wall with names particularly meaningful.
“From the Yisker Books done after World War II,” he says, “we identified close to 1,300 people from Wadowice, Jewish and Catholic, killed in the death camps.”
Kluger and his father are all who remained of his family. The largest section detailing John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land, which includes the video of him putting his personal prayer in the Western Wall, is another moving moment.
Visitors are invited to write their own prayer on a copy of John Paul’s prayer card and put it in the replica 20-foot wall “with the guarantee we will take those prayers unread to the Western Wall,” says Buchanan. This summer, the co-creators personally delivered some 32,000 prayers to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The exhibit has several goals. The co-creators, which also include William Madges, chairman of Xavier’s theology department, want it to be commemorative of John Paul; they also hope visitors will incorporate these lessons and values in their lives. (“A Blessing to One Another” received the blessing of Pope John Paul II, who received Buchanan, Ingber and Madges during a 2004 audience in St. Peter’s Square.)
“We really do see it as a tool to build a better future rather than simply to view the past,” explains Buchanan. “Just as John Paul reached across that boundary to embrace the Jewish population and other faith traditions, we need to be inspired to do that in our lives.”
“It’s particularly important for Catholics and Jews at this moment because Benedict XVI is the last pope who will have direct memory of the Holocaust,” he adds, “and the Holocaust has been the foundation to building the bridge between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people so that they might be a blessing to one another.”
Observes Bishop Vasquez, “My hope is that this exhibit will benefit our Jewish and Catholic communities as well as the entire greater Houston community to foster mutual respect and appreciation among all people of good will.”
Indeed, Buchanan points out that everywhere this exhibit appeared it has had a transformative impact on the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish community. He affirms it radically transformed the Cincinnati community. Xavier University now has Ingber as a permanent employee, and the Jewish community regularly does programs there.
Toward this goal, schoolchildren are invited to visit. “It’s the future generation we’re concentrating on,” says Buchanan. “If we teach the children to be in dialogue and practice love for one another, then our future can be a very different one.”
Ingber, who lost his grandparents and two uncles in the Holocaust and met Pope John Paul II on two occasions, also has this firm belief.
“First and foremost, you do want to educate,” he says. “Beyond the education, John Paul II without any hesitation is worthy of the celebration inherent in the papacy he delivered to the world stage and to the Jewish world, not only in their unique acceptance, but in this celebration between the Jewish people and Catholic Church.
“Everybody who has ever seen this exhibit can, in their new approach, bring that into their home, their life, and celebrate in a magnificent way with the other. … We all can be the Jewish boy who encountered and lived with the 10-year-old Catholic boy.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes
from Trumbull, Connecticut.
INFORMATION Visit BlessingExhibit.org