Pope John Paul II called for renewed commitment to stronger dialogue between Jews and Catholics Tuesday as he warmly received more than 100 Jewish leaders, rabbis, cantors and their relatives in what was described as the largest such audience at the Vatican.
Most of the participants were from the United States, including a large contingent from the New York metropolitan area, but there were also rabbis from Israel, France, India, Canada and Croatia among the group wanting to thank the pontiff for his dedication in improving relations between Jews and Catholics.
The long-scheduled gathering happened to come amid revived debate over a contentious postwar issue — the Vatican's attempt to keep hold of some Jewish children who were baptized to save them from the Nazis.
But no echoes of that dispute seemed to resound in the marble-lined, frescoed Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace where John Paul, seated in his white, upholstered wheeled chair, enthusiastically received his guests.
40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate
John Paul noted that this year will mark the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a landmark Vatican declaration which rescinded the accusation holding Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
"May this be an occasion for renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation in the service of building a world ever more firmly based on respect for the divine image in every human being," the pope said.
The pontiff has made better relations with Jews a hallmark of a papacy and has met large gatherings of Jews on several occasions, including his groundbreaking 1986 visit to Rome's main synagogue and his 2000 trip to Israel.
"Upon all of you, I invoke the abundant blessings of the Almighty and, in particular, the gift of peace. Shalom aleichem," John Paul said, using the traditional greeting when two Jews meet.
Pope praised for defense of Jews
His guests lavished praise on pope for his defense of the Jews.
"You have defended Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and during your pontificate," Gary Krupp, from the Pave the Way Foundation, said in opening remarks. John Paul thanked Krupp, of Long Beach, N.Y., for his "kind words."
Toward the end of the half-hour encounter, as rabbis, other Jewish representatives, spouses and children came up one by one to shake the pope's hand, cantors broke out in brief song.
John Paul smiled warmly at his guests, most of whom appeared more at ease in meeting the pope than some at many other audiences, when participants often seem stiff or intimidated when their turn arrives before the pontiff.
Many of Tuesday's participants were from the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based group aimed at better relations between the faiths.
"Posterity will surely consider the last 40 years as the most revolutionary and significant in terms of progress in relations between Jews and Catholics," Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Englewood, N.J., said in a statement.
"From the Second Vatican Council and under the guidance of John Paul II, the church has made extremely significant steps to construct new links with Jews on the basis of sincere mutual affection," Bemporad said.
During John Paul's papacy, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel.