'I am Joseph, your brother:' John XXIII and the Jews

Angelo Roncalli

During the Second World War, the-then Angelo Roncalli, serving as a papal diplomat, saved many Jews from murder at the hands of the Nazis. As Pope John XXIII, he instigated historic reconciliation with the Jewish people.

- The Times of Israel

A little more than half a century ago, on June 3, 1963, a great and brave friend of the Jewish people passed away. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born into a modest Italian family. He reached the summit of the Catholic hierarchy and died as Pope John XXIII, but he was fondly nicknamed 'the Good Pope.'

Roncalli was a remarkable man who epitomized courage, passion for justice and a strong spirit of reform. His record as Pope is well documented and widely known. In 1961, he commissioned the drafting of the revolutionary Decretum de Judaeis (Decree on the Jews) which served as a basis to Nostra Aetate (Our Age), a declaration of the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions, which was promulgated in 1965 by his successor, Pope Paul VI, after Roncalli's death.

The Decree on the Jews is a complex document, but among other considerations, it stipulates that Jews who lived during Jesus's era, let alone future generations of Jews, cannot be blamed for his death. In addition, Pope John XXIII instructed that an offensive remark about Jews (who were portrayed as 'perfidious') be erased from the Good Friday prayer.

Many other anecdotes surrounding his Papacy clearly show his innermost feelings towards Jews. One of them relates to his famous statement: 'I'm Joseph, your brother,' referring to his middle name Giuseppe (Joseph, in Italian), in clear Biblical allusion of what Joseph said to his brothers in Egypt.

Before his papacy he also demonstrated his unconditional love for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel. Back in the 1940′s, during the dark days of the Holocaust, Angelo Roncalli served as Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul and in this position he went out of his way to save as many Jews as possible. His door was always open to the Jewish Yishuv leaders involved in the rescue efforts, especially Haim Barlas, who documented the aid he got from Roncalli.

According to historical accounts, Roncalli urged his superiors at the Vatican to respond to the plight of the Jews. He sent Palestine certificates of immigration via diplomatic courier to Angelo Rotta, the Papal Nuncio in Budapest, he interceded before the King of Bulgaria to save Jews and some believe that he even provided Certificates of Baptism.

Back in 2011, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation submitted a massive file (the Roncalli Dossier) to the Yad Vashem Israeli Holocaust Memorial, with a strong petition and recommendation to bestow upon him the title of Righteous among the Nations. 

For many years now, we at the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation have been working relentlessly to honour Roncalli and to spread his magnificent legacy. We promoted the naming of streets, schools, and a kindergarten after him, the erection of busts and monuments, the creation of educational programs and so forth.

We are very happy that one of our first members, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known nowadays as Pope Francis), who has always been very supportive of our mission to keep alive the legacies of the rescuers, is likely to follow the same path set by Angelo Roncalli, fostering a brotherly dialog between Christian and Jews.

Read full article: Good Pope 'Joseph' (The Times of Israel)

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