A first-hand remembrance of Pope John Paul II

April 5, 2005
Dr. Harvey Passes recalls being a part of a unique blessing at the Vatican

By Dr. Harvey Passes

I am a dentist who practices in Great Neck and resides in Manhasset. I have just had the experience of a lifetime. Dreams are rarely this good. Imagine being in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican where there is a worldwide delegation of Jews seated in the audience waiting for a private audience with His Holiness John Paul II. It is to be a meeting of gratitude within the tone of reconciliation.

The marble floors of the palace stretch to highly polished ancient wood and marble walls, which climb at least 40 feet. About halfway up, these walls are adorned with the most incredible frescoes created some 500 years ago perhaps by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael or other legendary artists. The sheer size of the artistry boggles the mind. I am sitting in the front row with my childhood friend Gary Krupp. I never would have imagined that such an event would take place with my participation. My friend is making good on a dream, his dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. This is a story that spans 800 years in the making. It would read like a novel except that it is true. It all happened.

Some years ago my friend Gary performed some special favors for the Vatican. A children's hospital was being built in Italy. Difficulties occurred and he was asked to assist. He did so unselfishly. Gary wouldn't accept any payment for his services. Sometime later he was asked again to assist with more problem solving. Again, he refused payment. The Pope was so impressed with this Jewish gentleman's unselfish philanthropic behavior that he bestowed upon him the title of Knight of Saint Gregory the Great. He is the seventh Jewish person ever given this honor by a pope. What happened next intensifies my story.

Sometime later Gary found himself at a benefit dinner where some rabbis were discussing the desire of Jewish scholars to see the Maimonides papers. These papers reflect the writings of Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, rabbi and physician who lived during the 12th century. These documents have been in the Vatican library for centuries and Jewish scholars have been denied access to them. During this benefit dinner one of the rabbis wondered if they would ever be able to see them. Someone told them to speak to Gary. The rabbis looked at this person wondering if this was a joke or was he serious. They approached Gary and he said he would look into it. They did not know that Gary was now a member of the Papal household. Weeks later Gary called the rabbis stating that the Vatican had agreed to this momentous request. A trip to Rome allowed the eyes of these Jewish scholars to view these sacred manuscripts from the ancient sage. The Vatican greeted this august assembly with much warmth and generosity. Upon returning home many celebratory events were held to honor Gary's accomplishment. Then I got the phone call.

Gary said that he wanted to "devote his life to peace among religions, especially the Middle East." How does one react to this kind of a statement? You may as well move the ocean across the street with a spoon. Gary was firm, sure of himself and aggressively ambitious in this pursuit. He felt that attaining his title from the Pope was more than happenstance. With the respect of the Jewish people and now the Roman Catholic Church, he would have the ability to accomplish much. Pave The Way Foundation is the result of this desire. It is an organization that is "paving the way" for peace in various regions of the world. This is a not-for-profit foundation working to reach various worldwide religious and governmental levels of support. Gary asked me to be on his Board of Directors. In seemed a natural thing to do as we have been friends since the age of 16 and have always respected each other's opinion. What happened next astounded me.

Pave The Way Foundation began to shuttle between New York, Rome and Jerusalem with stops along the way to England and other cities. Relationships began building between Pave The Way Foundation and various ambassadors to the United Nations, cardinals, bishops, Israeli and Palestinian officials and more. The Foundation was able to negotiate the amazing loan of the Maimonides papers to Israel as a gesture of goodwill from the Vatican. This is all being done through Pave The Way Foundation. Much can be accomplished through the "gesture of goodwill." Just when I thought things could not realistically get any better, Gary announces that "Pave The Way Foundation has been granted a private audience with His Holiness John Paul II."

During a Board of Directors meeting Gary let it be known that he has been working on a meeting of gratitude and thanks to His Holiness for his defense of Jews before his papacy as well as during it. Under his pontificate the Vatican recognized the State of Israel by exchanging ambassadors. Pope John Paul II was the first Pope since Saint Peter to visit a synagogue. He also visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem and left an inscribed message within the wall asking for forgiveness. He has also made it a sin to be anti-Semitic. He has been a friend to the Jewish people and has tried to bridge the ancient gap. Pave The Way Foundation would bring a worldwide delegation of 100 rabbis, 12 cantors and Jewish leaders to offer prayers of thanks and gratitude to His Holiness. The pope happily agreed to this request.

On January 18th at 11:30 am we all assembled within the Vatican's Apostolic Palace to meet Pope John Paul II. Our speech was presented first, as follows:

"Your Holiness:

We are a group of people who represent a cross section of Judaism, who have traveled here with the blessings of millions of our faith in order to thank you.

Soon after your ascension to the throne of St. Peter, you made a telling trip to Auschwitz in order to pay homage to victims of the holocaust. You have defended the Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and during your twenty-six year pontificate. You have denounced anti-Semitism as a "sin against God and humanity." This tone of reconciliation has been the corner stone of your papacy and its relations with the Jewish people.

On April 13, 1986, you became the first Pope since St. Peter to visit a synagogue. Upon presenting his credentials to you in June 2003, Israeli Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur expressed this enormous gesture best when he said, "On that day you took upon your shoulders the 2000 year old church, back to the first century synagogue of Capernaum, where Jesus used to pray, thus closing an historic circle."

You moved the Holy See to initiate the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in 1992, the beloved biblical homeland of the Jewish people, symbolically acknowledging the existence of Eretz Yisrael yesterday, today, and forever.

Your pilgrimage to Israel and the Holy Land on March 21, 2000, was immortalized in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people around the world, when you placed your prayer asking for forgiveness in the Western Wall.

Your solemn remarks during your visit to the Hall of Remembrance, Yad Vashem profoundly moved us and touched our hearts.

It is impossible to describe the emotional impact these milestones have had on Jews worldwide. Your Holiness, these reconciliatory acts have, in fact, been a hallmark of your pontificate as you have also tried to repair the ancient rifts in all of the religions in the world. The Jewish Ethics of the Fathers beautifully captures, in verse, the love you have exhibited for all humanity. Rabbi Hillel says: "Be among the disciples of Aaron, by being a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, a lover of all humanity and bringing them closer to religion".

For your acts of love of all humankind and your implacable pursuit of peace and reconciliation of all the faiths, your Holiness truly is the personification of these ideals and spirit of Aaron, the high priest of ancient Israel.

In closing, you have referred to us, the children of Abraham, as your beloved elder brothers. My prayerful wish is that Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three children of Abraham, may soon bond together in one common cause and voice to defend all humanity against those who defame God by committing wanton acts of violence in his holy name.

Your Holiness, Thank you, thank you, thank you. Shalom, Shalom, Shalom."

As a thunderous applause erupted from the audience I could see that Pope John Paul II was visibly moved. He applauded and smiled. He looked at each and every one of us. A feeling of love and brotherhood flowed throughout the room. Then he responded.

"Dear Friends,

With affection I greet the members of the "Pave The Way Foundation" on your visit to the Vatican, and I thank Mr. Krupp for the kind words which he has addressed to me on your behalf. This year we will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate, which has significantly contributed to the strengthening of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. May this be an occasion for renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation in the service of building a world ever more firmly based on respect for the divine image in every human being.
Upon all of you, I invoke the abundant blessings of the Almighty and, in particular, the gift of peace. Shalom aleichem."

More joyful thunderous applause filled the room. Most people in the great hall were aware of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate which stated that Jews were not collectively responsible for the death of Christ and that "¿in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

Then I and a few members of the Board of Directors got up to present the pope a gift. It was a glass sculpture of two open palm hands holding the globe. It signified a humanitarian award to the pope. He graciously accepted it. Three rabbis stood up and approached him. They spoke a prayer and blessed him. This was the first time that anyone in the Vatican could remember the pope being blessed and not the other way around. He then blessed our congregation. Twelve cantors began to sing songs of prayer filling the room with optimism and hope. The pope physically extended his hand to members of Pave The Way Foundation. One by one we shook his hand as we looked into each other's eyes. Then something wonderful happened.

Pope John Paul II asked the entire congregation to step forward so that he could shake their hands as well. Members of the papal household started to hand out gifts to all of us. His Holiness was in a very good mood and wanted to share this feeling with all of us. It was then that I remembered the Pave The Way Foundation slogan, EMBRACE OUR SIMILARITIES, SAVOR OUR DIFFERENCES.

What an experience.

Should you want to become involved with this amazing foundation or provide donations please call my office 516 487 3131 for information. We are also available to present this event to interested groups.

This is a journey worth taking.

Shalom. Pax. Salome Aleikem. Peace be with you.