Five years ago, the exhibition, “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” opened in the Cohen Center art gallery on Xavier’s campus and ran from May 19-July 15, 2005. Since then it has been displayed at 12 additional locations, including the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
The multimedia exhibit includes photos, video footage, documents and artifacts recording the extraordinary contributions of Pope John Paul II toward improved relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths. It was created by James Buchanan, director for the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier, Rabbi Abie Ingber, director for Xavier’s Office of Interfaith Community Engagement, former Department of Theology chairman Bill Madges and Yaffa Eliach, professor and Holocaust survivor. The team presented the exhibit to John Paul II at the Vatican before he died.
The section of the exhibit on the Pope’s childhood years as Karol Wojtyla highlights the prominence of the Jewish community in his Polish hometown of Wadowice and its profound influence on him. One quarter of his classmates were Jewish, including his lifelong friend, Jerzy Kluger. Wojtyla lost touch with Kluger for 27 years, but they were reunited after Wojtyla became a bishop.
John Paul II was the first pope to enter a synagogue, officially visit and recognize the State of Israel, and to formally engage in an act of repentance for the Catholic Church’s historical treatment of Jews. The exhibit draws its name from the Pope's 1993 speech at the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:
“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 first be a blessing to one another.”
Buchanan recalled the months leading up to the exhibit’s opening.
“As we sat in Xavier’s Brueggeman Center night after night into the wee hours creating it, our only thoughts were to fulfill our promise to the Pope that we would open on his 85th birthday, May 18, 2005,” Buchanan said. “At that point we had one venue after Xavier and nothing else. Looking back on five years and 13 venues across the country, I can only feel amazement and gratitude. That it has been seen and impacted the lives of more than a quarter million people, and that we have delivered nearly 50,000 prayers to the Western Wall, seems at times nothing short of a miracle.”
Since its inaugural run in Cincinnati, other locations where the exhibit has been displayed include Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia sponsored by St. Joseph’s University, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Rapid City, S.D., Avila University in Kansas City, Mo., Alvernia University in Reading, Penn., and the Holocaust Museum of Houston. It is currently at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.
"We could never have imagined that the story we told of two young boys from Wadowice would travel the American world and inspire so many to lives of encounter and meaningfulness,” Ingber said. “We are truly honored that we have transported the message of Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People for these five years as a fitting memorial tribute to his life."
Last year, Ingber, Madges and Buchanan traveled to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to deliver 31,099 of the prayers gathered during the exhibit’s journey. As promised, the prayers were placed into the wall unread. The exhibit can be viewed at www.blessingexhibit.org.