In an unprecedented session held earlier this week, members of the Israeli parliament praised St John XXIII for his efforts in improving Jewish-Christian relations, both before and during his pontificate.
“John XXIII should serve as an example for all men of the need to bring together peoples of different races, faiths and beliefs,” former immigration and absorption minister Yair Tzeven voiced during the May 13 event, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The paper reports in a May 13 article that during the encounter members of the parliament, known as the Knesset, gave special attention to the saint’s efforts in saving Jews during the holocaust while serving as Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey.
He was also praised for laying the groundwork of Nostra Aetate, a declaration of the Second Vatican Council that was instrumental in reconciling Jewish and Catholic relationships.
Published in 1965, the document was released after the pontiff’s death and rejected former claims against the Jewish people, principally that they were guilty of Jesus’s death.
Canonized last month alongside Polish Pope Saint John Paul II, John XXIII was born in Italy as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, and served as the Supreme Pontiff from 1958 until his death in 1963.
While an archbishop, Roncalli was appointed as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1934, which is a position held for the majority of World War II. While serving in Istanbul, the future Pope distributed numerous documents to Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazi regime and attempting to make their way to Mandatory Palestine.
The archbishop also wrote thousands of such documents to the Vatican’s ambassador in Budapest at the time, Angelo Ratti, who was working with the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, among others, to save Jews from the terrors of the Holocaust.
Roncalli’s efforts during the war are credited for helping save thousands of Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, the Post reports, including many from Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Speaking during the Knesset’s session, the Jerusalem Post states that Tzeven recalled how five years ago many historians, authors and public figures in Israel called on the state to recognize John XXIII’s actions during the Holocaust as well as his efforts in repairing relations with the Jewish people, and praised Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for supporting this recognition of the pope.
“There has not been an event like today’s in the history of the Knesset, an event which is so important to our relations with the Christian and Catholic world” Tzeven explained, noting that “John XXIII should serve as an example for all men” of the need for unity.
Following Tzeven’s remarks, the Post reports that Edelstein then opened the session by stating that “Pope John XXIII was known as a humanist, a sensitive man and someone who helped save Jews during his service as a papal emissary in Turkey.”
Continuing, the Knesset speaker remarked that Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, the grandfather of the parliament’s current opposition leader Isaac Herzog who was also present at the meeting, “recognized John XXIII as an exceptional person who served as a contact person for the various rescue operations of Jews throughout Europe (during the Holocaust).”
Rising to the podium after the Edelstein, Herzog recalled the frequent meetings held between then-Archbishop Roncalli and his grandfather, noting that “When the news from Europe first reached my grandfather, he did everything to save Jews.”
“As part of these efforts, he met many times with Roncalli and stated that at these meetings the Archbishop wept,” he continued.
“John XXIII made tremendous efforts to save Jews, and because of him thousands of Jews were indeed saved.”
Observing how “this special person served just five years as pope,” Herzog recounted how “He took up the post at age 77 and initiated a massive revolution;” one which “established that Judaism was the older brother to Christianity.”