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'We Are All Children of the Same God'

October 25, 2007
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Exhibit co-director William Madges explains the pope's childhood interactions with Jews in Wadowice, Poland.
Twenty-one years ago, two religious leaders of different faiths met, and history was made. On April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II was welcomed to Rome's central synagogue by Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome.

It was the first time a pope had ever visited a synagogue.

In a new exhibit, now on display at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, one particular image captures the spirit of this historic meeting: The two men shake hands heartily, both smiling with wide grins, clearly pleased that the moment had come to pass.

This is the image used on a Web site, brochures, programs and more for a traveling exhibit that concentrates on the late John Paul II and the Jewish people, and highlights how he reached across religious borders throughout his life.

The exhibit, "A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II & the Jewish People," takes its name, and draws its inspiration, from a quote uttered by the pope marking the 50th anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto: "As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another."

Exhibit co-creator William Madges, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Joseph's University, came to the school in June 2006 from Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he and three others had created the exhibit. The four traveled to Rome in 2004 and met with the pope, who gave his blessing to the project. The multimedia display premiered at Xavier in May 2005 on what would have been the pope's 85th birthday.

According to Madges, the exhibit has made five stops so far on its tour, including Washington, D.C., and New York City, and chronicles four major parts of the pope's life: his childhood in Wadowice, Poland; occupied Poland during World War II; his ministry from priest to cardinal; and his pontificate. Each section includes photos, videos, documents and artifacts recording the contributions Pope John Paul II made to improve relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths during each phase of his life.

"To understand his career as pope, you need to understand his childhood, and then it all makes sense," explained Madges.

An Initial First
John Paul II was the first pope to go to a concentration camp (Auschwitz in 1979), welcome a chief rabbi from Israel to the Vatican (1993), and visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Museum (2000). His first audience as a newly elected pope in October 1978 was with his close friend Jerzy Kluger, a Jew from his childhood town. The friendship between the two is highlighted throughout the exhibit.

On Oct. 17, a reception was held at the Kimmel Center to mark the exhibit's Philadelphia opening, which is presented locally by St. Joe's.

Ironically, the day before the exhibit's local opening marked 29 years since Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and became John Paul II. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the university's Jewish-Catholic Institute, which is dedicated to promoting dialogue between the two faith communities.

Guests received tours of the exhibit and walked under a a three-dimensional recreation of the gate from the Krakow ghetto. Toward the end of the exhibit, a replica of the Western Wall allows visitors the opportunity to place a message in between the stones, echoing what the pope did on his visit there in 2000. These messages will then be taken and placed in the real Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Toaff is now 93 years old and still lives in Rome. He couldn't be present at the exhibit's local opening, but his nephew, who lives in Merion, did attend.

Dr. Michael Toaff, a reproductive endocrinologist and gynecologist, speaks to his uncle twice a week and informed him of the exhibit's existence.

"I spoke to my uncle about it, and he was pleased that what transpired at the time still resonates," said Toaff.

Madges said that he hopes the exhibit will touch people spiritually and inspire them "to work for religious understanding in their communities."

There is a well-known story from the very young Karol Wojtyla's life, when he was attending Mass one day and his friend Kluger stopped by with some news. The service was still in progress, so Wojtyla motioned to his friend to wait. A parishioner saw the Jewish boy, and made a stern remark to Kluger about his presence in a church. After the Mass ended, Kluger told his friend what had happened.

Wojtyla's response, at the age of 10, displayed a depth of understanding that would be reflected in his papacy years later: "She doesn't understand that we are all children of the same God."

The free exhibit is open daily at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 23. Guided group tours are available by appointment only. For more information, log on to: www.blessingexhibit.org.

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