HARRISBURG, Pa.—“Oh, how I love this Pope” are not words one might expect to hear from a rabbi.
But it's a fond saying of Rabbi David Ben-Ami of Harrisburg, who is spending his retirement establishing a Pope John Paul II institute for the advancement of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
“We need to do something in this Pope's honor,” Rabbi Ben-Ami said.
Rabbi Ben-Ami is an unabashed admirer of the current pontiff's attempts to strengthen Jewish-Catholic relations.
So, heeding his own advice, he is lobbying both his Jewish brethren and Catholic friends, and seeking the blessings and assistance of such groups as the American Forum for Jewish-Christian Cooperation, a Harrisburg-based organization, and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a monastic community in Arkansas founded by Catholic musician John Michael Talbot.
He said the aim is to promote tolerance, reconciliation, understanding, unity and peace by reaching out to all people of faith and good will. The institute would be grounded in the truths of the one true God and in a respect for Catholicism, he said.
The rabbi said Pope John Paul's words are providing him with the additional energy needed to work on his initiative.
He said the Pope has preached about the “sacred obligations” of all Christians to respect the Jewish faithful as children of God, and has encouraged the creation of “ever newer opportunities” for propelling Jewish-Catholic relations to a higher plane.
The rabbi has a genuine respect for the Holy Father, in large part because they share an understanding and have a common experience: Both lived under the iron fist of Nazi terror.
As a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, Pope John Paul studied clandestinely for the priest-hood. He had many Jewish friends, and he witnessed the oppression and persecution of the Jewish faithful.
Rabbi Ben-Ami fled Germany's Third Reich in the 1930s with his parents. They were blessed, he said, to have gotten out when they did. Many of the rabbi's close relatives and family friends perished in the concentration camps.
The rabbi said he also is inspired in his quest to honor Pope John Paul II by the work and dedication of his Catholic friends.
His interfaith roots run deep, all the way back to the early 1960s, when he was involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. His colleagues in those days included Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, priests from the Divine Word Missionaries and numerous men and women religious.
Over the years, he also has developed a warm interfaith friendship with Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, a leading figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the United States.
One of the rabbi's favorite directives about interfaith efforts comes from a talk Pope John Paul gave 14 years ago at the Vatican. In it, he said it is pleasing to God when Jews and Christians embark on the “fraternal journey in which we accompany one another toward the transcendent goal which he sets for us.”
“I have certainly sought to develop and deepen our relationship with the Jews, our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham,” Pope John Paul said in the speech. “And I therefore encourage and bless the initiatives of all those who, in fidelity to the directives of the Second Vatican Council and animated by good will and religious hope, foster relationships of mutual esteem and friendship and promote the Jewish-Christian dialogue.”