A Tale of Two Popes

06/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By late Fall of 2004, it was apparent that the Pope did not have long to live. It was understandable then that Vatican officials pressed us as to why the Simon Wiesenthal Center wanted a second audience with John Paul II. "Judaism has a mandate of 'Hakarat Hatov' -- recognizing someone when they do act righteously. We have no agenda this time. We simply want to say thank you", replied my colleague and mentor Rabbi Marvin Hier. So after His Holiness rallied, we flew to Rome and on December 1st our small delegation had a private audience in the Pope's personal chapel. A shadow of the strapping, muscular, larger than-life figure we first met in 1983, here was a man, ravaged by illness, physically bent , but spiritually intact. He even retained his sense of humor, laughing when Rabbi Hier reminded him that he had played goalie for a Jewish soccer team in his youth.

We thanked the Pope for transforming relations between Catholics and The Jewish people; for descending from the throne of St. Peter to attend Services at Rome's Synagogue (a first); for making the pilgrimage to Auschwitz (a first); for praying and placing a 'kvital' in the cracks of Jerusalem's Western Wall; for labeling anti-Semitism a sin... for recognizing the intrinsic value of Judaism...for being a mensch...

In 2005, we returned to the Vatican to meet Benedict XVI. Much has been made of the differences in constitution, temperament, and personal background of Benedict and his predecessor.

In fact, as then Cardinal Ratzinger, he served as a key theological advisor and ally for Pope John Paul II who declared that Jews-were no longer to be condemned for not recognizing Jesus' divinity but to be seen as Christians' "elder brothers in faith".

Though raised in Nazi Germany, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote this about the Nazi Holocaust: "it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians."

And he backed John Paul II's ultimate reversal of Church anti-Jewish doctrine when he established full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in the Holy Land can't change the past, or ensure that there won't be future controversies or disagreements. But his pilgrimage presents an opportunity for Jews to acknowledge that today, this Church, once a main source of anti-Semitism, openly recognizes our people's right to pursue its unique historic and spiritual destiny.