The exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” has toured much of the US — including Philadelphia in 2007. It opened at the Vatican Museum in Rome July 21.
When Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia on Oct. 3, 1979, there was no great fanfare. None of the elaborate security measures being undertaken now for Pope Francis’ arrival in late September were put into effect the last time a pontiff visited. He even rode in an open limo through the streets, waving to the masses.
It was, in many ways, a simpler, more innocent time — quite appropriate for the man who eschewed so many of the trappings of his position, who grew up Karol Wojtyla in Poland, where one of his closest friends, Jerzy Kluger, was Jewish.
That interfaith amity became one of the central themes in his life. Indeed, his respect for and outreach to the Jewish people was a constant of his papacy until his death in 2005. It helped shaped his time as the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics.
This has been captured in the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” which has toured much of the United States — including Philadelphia in 2007 — and which opened at the Vatican Museum in Rome July 21. The 2,500-square foot interactive exhibit, which includes vivid photographs of the pope’s life from childhood through his papacy, videos, interviews with people like Kluger, who passed away in 2011, a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where the pope once placed a handwritten prayer and special artifacts from the Pope’s personal collection, will run at the Vatican until Sept. 17.
Exhibit officials are hopeful Pope Francis might attend those closing ceremonies, before he leaves for Cuba and the United States on Sept. 19. Among those officials is William Madges, a theology professor at Saint Joseph’s University.
Madges was one of the co-creators of the exhibit when he worked at Xavier University in Cincinnati. The original concept came from Dr. Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and professor emeritus from Brooklyn College who was a visiting professor at Xavier in 2003.
“I was chairman of the theology department,” said Madges, a native of Detroit, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago. “She had done some research and was very interested in Karol Wotiyla.
“She said to me, ‘Do you think many people, especially Catholics, know he had a lifelong positive relationship with the Jewish people?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think many know that.’
“She replied, “Since we’re educators, don’t you think something should be done about that?’ ”
Before anything, they had to get the pope’s blessing, which required clearance from the Vatican and various Catholic officials in order to be granted a papal audience. Eventually, all the hurdles were cleared and, on Oct. 27, 2004, the four presented their plan to John Paul II.
“We had basically five minutes at the end of a general audience,’’ said Madges, who has since been to Rome five other times and will return again for the exhibit’s closing ceremonies in September. “I told him our intention was to open the exhibit in May 2005 as his 85th birthday present. That’s what put the pressure on us to get it done to open on time.”
Somehow, they managed to complete the mission, despite having no idea what it entailed. What most experts considered to be a 3- to 4-year project was done in six months, opening May 18, 2005 in Cincinnati.
The pope, however, never made it to his 85th birthday. He passed away April 2, though his emissaries did send three special artifacts to the exhibit: the zuchetto — white skull cap — he wore on his trip to Israel in 2000; the cane he used on that trip; and a copy of his handwritten notes for the speech he gave when he visited Auschwitz in 1979.
Since then, the exhibit has gone to 17 cities, including Philadelphia, where it was put on display at the Kimmel Center in October 2007.
Now, following a two-year quest, the exhibit will finally get to the Vatican. Ultimately, the plan is for it to arrive in its final home, Poland, where it will be presented to the Polish people as a gift.
Now only one thing could cap the exhibit: if Pope Francis would attend the closing ceremonies on Sept. 17, two days before he departs for Cuba.
“I was at the annual meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews,’’ said Madges. “There were representatives from more than 40 nations. Pope Francis agreed to meet with us because the Catholic-Jewish relationship is important to him. And after he gave his formal remarks, he surprised us by greeting each one of us individually.
“I told who I was, and then mentioned the exhibit to him, which is right next door. He smiled, but didn’t make a commitment. So maybe he’ll come.”