I had the privilege of attending the double canonization this week, where two popes – John XXIII and John Paul II  – were proclaimed as saints by the Catholic Church. It was a unique event for many reasons. The Israeli media highlighted the fact that it was an event that involved four popes – two proclaimed saints, and two engaged in the proclamation. Interesting observation, but not really significant; a kind of spiritual gossip of important people. Its only significance is due to the fact that so many people turned their attention to the event, but other than papal-celebrity status, no real lessons or inspirations can be drawn from that perspective.

Canonization - RomeThere was another angle, itself a great novelty. I was part of a Jewish delegation, numbering about 20 individuals from all over the Jewish world, including representatives of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. We were given front row seats, and at some points were within arm’s length distance of Pope Francis and many of the Cardinals that passed by. Even 20 years ago this would not have been possible. That Jews should take part and be given seats of honor at an internal Catholic celebration is a sign of how close our religious communities have become, a fact unknown to large parts of the Jewish world. The Jews were honoring figures who brought about change in Jewish-Christian relations. It was a way of saying thank you and expressing recognition of the singular contribution of these two popes. John XXIII paved the way to new Jewish-Christian relations by including a statement on Judaism in the works of the Second Vatican Council. This statement, nostra aetate, brought about a radical change in the view of Jews, removing from them centuries-old charges of deicide and affirming the continuing validity of Judaism from a Christian theological perspective. John Paul II advanced Jewish-Christian relations in multiple ways, including establishing political relations with Israel, visiting the synagogue of Rome and making transformative gestures, such as placing a prayer for forgiveness in the cracks of the kotel. Thanks to the work of these two popes, as well as their successors, Catholics are todays some of Israel’s closest allies. There was much to say thank you for.

But can Christian saints mean anything to us, as Jews, beyond expressions of recognition for sea-changes they brought about in Christian attitudes to Judaism? Can the testimony of any religious hero, call him saint, virtuoso, or whatever, from another religion, be significant for Jews, or for that matter to a member of another faith tradition? Are saints and holy men and women a purely internal affair of a religion or can they have some message to communicate to members of other faiths? I would like to suggest that at least some of the people who are called saints have a message that goes beyond the confines of their own faith community. I am presently engaged in a project, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, of identifying and lifting up special figures who have the capacity to inspire across religious traditions. We have been studying these figures under the rubric of “religious genius”, suggesting some admirable quality that transcends the boundaries of a particular religion. Many of the people who are called saints, using the internal language of holiness, can also be spoken of as religious geniuses, using the language of creativity, originality and contribution – to their religion and to society at large. These are individuals who have helped advance their religion, aiding it in finding new expressions and articulations, as suitable for the time. Their capacity to drive their religion forward and to articulate a message for the time is itself something that is inspiring for other religions. Very often, the message itself is also of broader significance.

John XXIII had the vision of a reform, a restatement of what the Church requires for today. His inspiration of holding the second Vatican Council, that led to multiple reforms, is grounded in the goodness of his person, the vision of his spirit and his ability to read the times and to respond to them. Can we even begin to imagine rabbinic authorities engaging in a similar process? Granting differences in hierarchical structures, formal procedures and all else, can we begin to contemplate what an equivalent procedure might be for Jews? Can we be inspired by the vision, creativity and outcomes of a far reaching reform, based on collegiality, process and global vision? If so, then John XXIII can inspire us even though his canonization is a purely internal Catholic affair.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein meeting Pope John Paul IIThinking of John Paul II, we can contemplate the power of one man’s faith in helping change an entire world order, contributing to the fall of iron curtain. We can consider his ability to find new ways of reaching out in faith to youth and to family. We can consider his theological contributions to such areas as affirmation of the human body as a site for recognizing holiness. All too often our perceptions are tainted by the controversies associated with famous issues of contention, such as ordination of women and issues related to sexuality and reproduction. But whatever our stand on these issues may be, we must learn to see beyond those controversies that often inform the mediatic vision of a person. The power of deep faith has moved mountains. And it has done so on a global scale.

Sitting at the canonization, I asked myself how many Jews of the 21st centuries have been able to bring about radical transformation of their religion, helping it take new forms and deliver its message in a new way on a global scale, and how many have done so not based simply on a social drive for improving the world but out of a sense of deep communion with God (these are our working criteria for “religious genius”). Within the Jewish Orthodox world I can only think of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Once we frame the question in this way, we are invited to be inspired by these two popes, even beyond the debt of gratitude we owe them. In some way, these saints of the Catholic Church, can also be our heroes.