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An Ecumenical Surprise: A Story About Pope St. John Paul II in a Hebrew Textbook

February 7, AD2015

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Some years ago I found myself, a Cuban-American cradle Catholic, sitting in my Hebrew II class at Gratz College, Philadelphia, PA. I was determined to find my Jewish roots from Conversos, the 15th c. Jewish converts from Spain. I had immersed myself into everything Jewish, and Conversational Hebrew was one of my goals. Right there before my eyes in my Hebrew textbook (Band, Ora. Hebrew: A Language Course Level 2) was this story that I will try to paraphrase in English as I remember it:

A young boy was having a bar-mitzvah. After the ceremony was over, the father, a quiet and soft-spoken man, decided to reveal to his son, now a Son of the Commandment, some of his background.

The father started by telling his son that he had been a jeweler’s apprentice during World War II in Poland. One morning a young priest stepped into the shop with a request. The priest wanted a silver cross with gems fixed into it. At first the lad refused the request, but finally gave in. The following day, while working on the cross, two Nazis appeared at the door. The boy raised the cross and the Nazis left the shop immediately. When the cross was finished he went to deliver it. After being paid, the priest told him in an alarming tone that it was very dangerous for him outside and that he shouldn’t leave the church that night. The priest made the boy follow him to a cellar where other young Jewish boys and girls were singing Psalms unto the Lord. Eventually, the priest got him a safe conduct and the boy escaped from Poland.

After a pause in their conversation, the bar-mitzvad boy asked his dad if he had ever met the priest again to thank him, and if he remembered his name. To this the father answered that he had never met the priest again, but recently, while looking at the paper, he thought he recognized him. His name was John Paul II. The priest who had helped the father as a boy happened to be the Pope.

While the story was being read in class, I got goosebumps. To think that the power of the cross had saved this boy’s life, and neither he nor my Jewish classmates were aware of it! Tears welled up in my eyes. I never thought that I would encounter such a story in a Hebrew textbook. What a surprise! We Catholics are not familiar with this anecdote of John Paul II. I was so moved that amidst my tears I uttered out loud: “I can’t believe this. Thank you so much!” I felt such gratitude that I wanted to give something back.

The following week was my turn to bring in an oral assignment. I went to class prepared. Since I wasn’t that familiar with the language, I read my small paragraph which read like this: “ I have a present (matanah) for you. It is not silver nor gold. But it is better than silver and gold because it speaks about friendship and solidarity and good will.” Then I proceeded to give out handouts of excerpts from the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate on Catholic guidelines about how our behavior should show kindness and gratitude towards our Jewish brothers. This was my present for them. This, too, was news to them, and they thanked me heartily.

As time elapsed and I produced signs of being Jewish descent on my maternal lineage, I was invited to join the Sinai Covenant (Jewish community) by a Sephardic rabbi. My love and conviction of Yeshua (Jesus) as the true Messiah was too strong in me to abandon Him, so instead of converting to Judaism, I vowed to myself to be a better Catholic and assured the rabbi of my intention to become a bridge between Catholics and Jews until death.

Ever since then, I have had plenty of opportunities to engage in uplifting dialogue with my Jewish brethren while telling the Lord, “Hineni, Adonai!” Here I am, Lord. Use me.

Alleluia!

photoMarta Maria Gomez-Cortes is a retired woman, mother of seven and grandmother of sixteen. She currently lives in Miami, Florida, close to her Cuban roots. Marta holds a Master’s degree in Catholic Systematic Theology from St. Charles Borromeo  Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. Her inquisitive mind helped her find some of her ancestry among the Jews of Spain, the Conversos. She spent many years in the teaching profession and counseling Latino students at La Salle University in Philadelphia. She is also fluent in several languages. Presently, Marta spends much of her time studying, reading, preparing for future courses in Catechetics, and researching comparative religious issues between Church and synagogue. This is her first article.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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  • Joanna Bogle

    I loved this story but alas the priest could not have been John Paul II – he was not ordained until after the war ended. During the War he was studying secretly to be a priest, while working in a stone quarry. It is remotely possible that he was asked – by whom? How? With what money? And why? – to get a jewelled cross made, but it seems extremely unlikely as this was wartime Poland, under the German occupation, and jewellry shops weren’t functioning normally in that way. And if he had found a shop and gone there, he wouldn’t have been dressed as a priest as he wasn’t one. Nor, alas, were Jewish people running shops or ordinary businesses at all: they were being hunted down and crammed into ghettos, to be sent to their deaths….The story about the boy delivering the cross to a church and being urged to seek shelter there is plausible, but no priest was in any position to get anyone a “safe conduct” out of Poland. How could he have done so? This was an occupied country surrounded by enemies on all sides. I fear that this story is the result of a number of muddles, possibly conflating different stories and mixing them up.

    St John Paul was a great man and a great Pope, and one of his most beautiful achievements was to develop a new and lasting bond between Catholics and Jews. His best friend at school in Wadowice before the war was a Jewish boy, Jerzy Kluger, and the two met again later in life – it’s a powerful and moving story and well worthj discovering: read Jerzy Kluger’s fascinating book on the subject.

    John Paul’s own life in occupied Poland was tough – his father died early in the war and he was entiely without any family, as his mother and brother had died years before All the unversities were closed, along of course with the seminaries. He studied for the priesthood with borrowed books and evening gatherings – held secretly – with other students with Archbishop Sapieha, and worked as a labourer in a quarry by day. Find out about it all…and give thanks fotr this fine man and fine priest who became a magnificent Pope, with a special heart for the Jewish people and for peace and goodwill among all men.

    Joanna Bogle

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  • This story is truly a jewel for both Catholics and Jews. Please keep it up. With your background and life experience, there’s no doubt you have much more to share and the reader so much more to learn.

  • strubabe

    It brought tears to my eyes burbs was not surprised. We had a saint in our midst and God is still with us.

  • Ray Glennon

    Thanks for this wonderful reflection. You have a wealth of experience and a gift for storytelling. Please continue to share it with others as you have here.
    Ray Glennon
    Twitter: @RayGlennon

  • Thank you for a stirring article. I sometimes think of how grateful I should be to all my non-Jewish ancestors, who first embraced the Catholic Faith and passed it on. St. Paul reminds me, a wild (non-Jewish) olive branch, that I should be grateful too for the cultivated (Jewish) olive tree into which I have been grafted and upon whose root my faith depends Rom 11: 17f.