This week in Jewish history | Pope John Paul II makes first ever pontifical visit to Israel - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Pope John Paul II makes first ever pontifical visit to Israel

This week in Jewish history | Pope John Paul II makes first ever pontifical visit to Israel

On 21 March 2000, Pope John Paul II arrived in Israel for a historic five-day pilgrimage. During his stay, the pope visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other cities, and talked about the need for peace, blessed Israel, and apologized for sins committed by Christians against Jews. 

The visit came after Israel and the Holy See signed the Fundamental Agreement, thereby establishing diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the Vatican on 30 December 1993. The only previous visit of a high-ranking pastor of the Church was Pope Paul VI on 4 January 1964. However, there were a number of differences between the two , including the generally positive tone of Pope John Paul II’s visit exemplified not only in his various speeches, but in its duration, which was significantly longer than Paul VI’s few hours in Israel.      

Pope John Paul II was greeted at Ben-Gurion airport by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who thanked him for “condemning antisemitism by labeling it as a crime against God and humanity.” In his remarks, the Pope said, “We all know how urgent is the need for peace and justice, not for Israel alone but for the entire region. May peace be God's gift to the Land he chose as his own." 

During a meeting r Weizman on 23 March, the Pope blessed Israel— a striking moment given that the Catholic Church taught that the Jews' exile was punishment for the death of Jesus.  

During his visit to Yad Vashem, the Pope said, ''In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” The Pope met with Holocaust survivors, including several from his hometown of Wadowice, Poland.  

The Pontiff concluded his visit by becoming the first Pope to visit the Western Wall. In a time-honored tradition, he placed a note in a crack in the wall. The text of that message read: “God of our fathers, You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”