On the morning of Oct. 27, a brief rain showered St. Peter’s Square in Rome, but no amount of precipitation could dampen the moment for William Madges, chair of the University’s department of theology; James Buchanan, director for the Edward B. Brueggeman center for dialogue; Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director for the Hillel Jewish Student Center of Cincinnati; and Yaffa Eliach, former Brueggeman chair and founder of the Shtetl Foundation in New York.
The four had waited almost two hours for an audience with Pope John Paul II, hoping to gain a papal blessing for their proposed landmark exhibition, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” which documents the pontiff’s lifelong relationship with the Jews.
And now they stood at the papal throne and presented the pontiff with a leather-bound overview of the project. The pope turned the pages, looked carefully at the photos from his early life, nodded approvingly—and smiled.
When “A Blessing to One Another” has its world premiere at the University on May 18, 2005—John Paul II’s 85th birthday—that smile will stand as the pinnacle in a series of defining moments for a project that has gone into overdrive since September. The 1,500-square-foot exhibition—a partnership between the University, Hillel and the Shtetl Foundation—will feature artifacts, photographs and videos.
Visitors will pass through several rooms representing various stages of the Pope’s life—from his childhood in Wadowice, Poland, to his days as a priest and papacy. There will even be an interactive area where visitors can write prayers that will be taken to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The exhibition will stay at the University until July 15, 2005, then move to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., where a replica of a portion of the display will become a permanent fixture. From there, it will tour Catholic and Jewish colleges and universities around the United States before heading to Europe. The project’s defining moments began early on, when the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati—the project’s lead financial sponsor—and the University declared support. In September, the John Paul II Cultural Center came on board and agreed to provide artifacts for the project.
Former President Jimmy Carter agreed to sit on the project’s advisory board. And then came Rome, where members of the delegation spoke with a dizzying array of Catholic and Jewish leaders, and Ingber had a personal meeting with Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who has been John Paul II’s close friend since both were young boys.
“Our trip to Rome was enormously successful,” says Madges, co-director of the project with Eliach and Ingber. “We were well received by all we met. The spirit of affirmation and support for the goals of this project was palpable.”
“A Blessing to One Another” is the brainchild of Eliach, a Holocaust survivor, former Brueggeman chair at Xavier and professor emeritus of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College in New York. Through her extensive research in Europe, Eliach became fascinated with the pope’s historical ties to the Jews—John Paul II grew up in a largely Jewish apartment building, a Jewish family helped raise him after his mother’s death, he regularly appeared in theater productions with Jewish friends, and his closest childhood friend, Kluger, lives near him today in Rome.
The more Eliach learned, the more she realized the story needed to be told. “I felt it would be wonderful, because I believe so much in togetherness, to make an exhibit,” she says.
University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., says the project is appropriate for Xavier on a number of levels. “It gives us great pride, as a Jesuit and Catholic institution, to begin to celebrate now the legacy and the achievements of Pope John Paul II,” Graham says. “His outreach to the Jewish people is one of the epoch-making accomplishments of his papacy, one which will be remembered long into the future, for it has changed forever the tenor of the relationship between Catholics and Jews. The story there to be told is not only one that involves formal visits and diplomatic relations, but is grounded in the early and deeply moving story of the Holy Father himself, and that very human story is by itself a story worth telling.”
Moreover, Graham says, because Xavier seeks to be known as a champion of interfaith relations and dialogue, it is especially significant for the University to be involved with the project with the Shtetl Foundation and Hillel. “Our hope is that our interfaith collaboration—to tell the wider world the story of the pope’s own interfaith commitment—will itself teach others about the importance of dialogue and collaboration across gulfs that may look as wide and divisive to us today as that gulf between Catholics and Jews may have looked 50 or 150 years ago,” he says.
Ingber, who lost his grandparents and two uncles in the Holocaust, and whose father was all too familiar with Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, sees the exhibition as near-miraculous. “To know that we literally have gone from my grandparents’ understanding of what the church represented in their lives to their grandson meeting with the pope and celebrating in the building of an exhibit that recognizes and honors this incredible, unique and changed relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish community, I don’t know how to characterize that as anything less than a miracle,” Ingber says. “And I place the positive responsibility for that sea change in the peaceful hands and blessings of John Paul II.”
For the larger Jewish community, Ingber points to the pope’s work in confronting anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and in responding to the reality and integrity of the State of Israel through his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visits to Jewish communities. “Throughout the world he has built a bridge that we hope will only continue to be strengthened and will carry the foot traffic of people committed to peace and brotherhood for generations to come,” Ingber says. “This exhibition tries to anchor that bridge as firmly as possible.”
Madges points out that the project is significant for a number of reasons: John Paul II is the first pope since the first century to visit a synagogue, as well as being the pope who established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, the pope who, more than any of his predecessors, committed the church to work for reconciliation between Jews and Christians. “This exhibit sends a signal that we’re doing the kinds of things a Catholic university and a department of theology should be doing,” Madges says.
The project also fits naturally into the Brueggeman center’s focus on dialogue. “We’re trying to make it more than just an exhibit,” Buchanan says. “Our hope is that it will be an experience that has a spiritual dimension to it and that stimulates people to begin to think more deeply about and engage more actively in interreligious dialogue.”
Graham says the University is committed to raising at least $100,000 from private sources for the project. “The Jewish Foundation has stepped forward to match this amount and has issued an additional challenge to us to raise even more—and this we will energetically do,” he says.
“We hope that the collaboration of Xavier University and the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati will inspire other local individuals and institutions to come forward with additional financial support of this important exhibit,” Madges says. “The premiere will attract national attention, and it would be great to show the world that we are a religiously and ethnically diverse city committed to collaboration and reconciliation.”