That is right. Through the amazing plurality of religions, arranged as it were in concentric circles, we come to the religion that is closest to our own-that of the people of God of the Old Testament.
The words from the Declaration Nostra Aetate represent a turning point. The Council says: "The Church of Christ, in fact, recognizes that according to the divine mystery of salvation the origins of the Church's faith and election are already found in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets. . . . The Church, then, can forget neither that it received the revelation of the Old Testament through that people with whom God, in his ineffable mercy, made the Ancient Covenant, nor can the Church forget that it draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Therefore, since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so great, this Sacred Council recommends and promotes a mutual understanding and respect, which can be obtained above all through biblical study and fraternal discussion" (Nostra Aetate 4).
The words of the Council's Declaration reflect the experience of many people, both Jews and Christians. They reflect my personal experience as well, from the very first years of my life in my hometown. I remember, above all, the Wadowice elementary school, where at least a fourth of the pupils in my class were Jewish. I should mention my friendship at school with one of them, Jerzy Kluger-a friendship that has lasted from my school days to the present. I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school. Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews, were united, I presume, by the awareness that they prayed to the same God. Despite their different languages, prayers in the church and in the synagogue were based to a considerable degree on the same texts.
Then came the Second World War, with its concentration camps and systematic extermination. First and foremost, the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation were condemned for no other reason than that they were Jewish. Even if only indirectly, whoever lived in Poland at that time came into contact with this reality.
Therefore, this was also a personal experience of mine, an experience I carry with me even today. Auschwitz, perhaps the most meaningful symbol of the Holocaust of the Jewish people, shows to what lengths a system constructed on principles of racial hatred and greed for power can go. To this day, Auschwitz does not cease to admonish, reminding us that anti-Semitism is a great sin against humanity, that all racial hatred inevitably leads to the trampling of human dignity.
I would like to return to the synagogue at Wadowice. It was destroyed by the Germans and no longer exists today. A few years ago Jerzy came to me to say that the place where the synagogue had stood should be honored with a special commemorative plaque. I must admit that in that moment we both felt a deep emotion. We saw faces of people we knew and cared for, and we recalled those Saturdays of our childhood and adolescence when the Jewish community of Wadowice gathered for prayer. I promised him I would gladly send a personal note as a sign of my solidarity and spiritual union on the occasion of such an important event. And so I did. It was Jerzy himself who brought that letter to my fellow citizens in Wadowice. That trip was not easy for him. All the members of his family who had remained in that small town had died at Auschwitz. His visit to Wadowice for the unveiling of the plaque in commemoration of the local synagogue was his first in fifty years.
The words of Nostra Aetate, as I have said, reflect the experience of many. I think back to the time of my pastoral work in Kraków. Kraków, and especially the Kazimierz neighborhood, retain many traces of Jewish culture and tradition. In Kazimierz, before the war, there were several dozen synagogues which were in some sense great cultural monuments as well. As Archbishop of Kraków, I was in close contact with the city's Jewish community. I enjoyed very cordial relations with the head of that community, which continued even after I came to Rome.
After my election to the See of Saint Peter, I have continued to cherish these deeply significant ties. On my pastoral journeys around the world I always try to meet representatives of the Jewish community. But a truly exceptional experience for me was certainly my visit to the synagogue of Rome. The history of the Jews in Rome is a unique chapter in the history of the Jewish people, a chapter closely linked for that matter to The Acts of the Apostles. During that memorable visit, I spoke of the Jews as our elder brothers in the faith. These words were an expression both of the Council's teaching, and a profound conviction on the part of the Church. The Second Vatican Council did not dwell on this subject at length, but what it did affirm embraces an immense reality which is not only religious but also cultural.
This extraordinary people continues to bear signs of its divine election. I said this to an Israeli politician once and he readily agreed, but was quick to add: "If only it could cost less!..." Israel has truly paid a high price for its "election." Perhaps because of this, Israel has become more similar to the Son of man, who, according to the flesh, was also a son of Israel. The two thousandth anniversary of His coming to the world will be a celebration for Jews as well.
I am pleased that my ministry in the See of Saint Peter has taken place during the period following the Second Vatican Council, when the insights which inspired the Declaration Nostra Aetate are finding concrete expression in various ways. Thus the way two great moments of divine election-the Old and the New Covenants-are drawing closer together.
The New Covenant has its roots in the Old. The time when the people of the Old Covenant will be able to see themselves as part of the New is, naturally, a question to be left to the Holy Spirit. We, as human beings, try only not to put obstacles in the way. The form this "not putting obstacles" takes is certainly dialogue between Christians and Jews, which, on the Church's part, is being carried forward by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
I am also pleased that as a result of the peace process currently taking place, despite setbacks and obstacles, in the Middle East, and thanks also to the initiative of the State of Israel, it became possible to establish diplomatic relations between the Apostolic See and Israel. As for the recognition of the State of Israel, it is important to reaffirm that I myself never had any doubts in this regard.
Once, after the conclusion of one of my meetings with the Jewish community, someone present said: "I want to thank the Pope for all that the Catholic Church has done over the last two thousand years to make the true God known."
These words indirectly indicate how the New Covenant serves to fulfill all that is rooted in the vocation of Abraham, in God's covenant with Israel at Sinai, and in the whole rich heritage of the inspired Prophets who, hundreds of years before that fulfillment, pointed in the Sacred Scriptures to the One whom God would send in the "fullness of time" (cf. Gal 4:4).