Finding hope, overcoming memory: The Legacy of John Paul II

We all seek hope, hope in a better future, hope in an ultimate future. Our religions are a source of hope. In their diversity, they address the human condition and offer a vision, rather: visions, of hope for their adherents. When they work well, and often they do, they do indeed provide hope for the faithful, and a vision of what it means to be human in the best possible way. When our religions facilitate human flourishing, they are sources of hope.

But our religions are also carriers of obstacles to hope and to flourishing. The popular perception of religions as sources of violence and disharmony amplifies one problematic strand within the complex realities called “religions”, eclipsing all that is positive and conducive to good living in these traditions.

Humanity needs hope and it has the right to turn to religions, in their diversity, in order to find such hope. Religions in turn have to live up to their deeper calling and guide humanity towards peaceful flourishing and fulfillment of a higher and nobler vision of what it means to be human.

And they must do so together, in harmony. We live in an interreligious age, an age in which we can no longer afford the luxury of isolation and exclusivity that have been inculcated into us over centuries. Our global village is too vulnerable and our humanity too much in need of guidance to be able to affirm the value of only one religion, even one’s own. While each person must adhere with fervor to her own religious tradition, our religions and their teaching must broaden to include means of recognizing others and of collaborating in practical ways with other religions for the good of humanity.

But there are many obstacles that must be cleared on the path to hope ­filled collaboration. If hope points to the future, our religions are grounded in the past. This does not make them irrelevant. But it does place upon them the burden of scrutinizing the past with an eye to recognizing how past attitudes must be addressed in an effort to identify a common future of hope. Our religions are repositories of memory and draw deeply from the memories of past relations between religions.

These memories are fraught with pain, they carry bitterness and they perpetuate negative attitudes between members of different faith traditions. Our memory can be the biggest obstacle to hope.

Some say we should just forget the past and move on. Religions do not forget. That is contrary to their foundations. But they do provide mechanisms for purifying memory. The term “purification of memory” was coined by the late John Paul II, who is being canonized at the very moment that many of the readers of this blog are reading this post. One of the innovations in this Pope’s teaching was that painful and problematic memory should neither be ignored, nor perpetuated.

Rather, it should be healed. Healing takes place through owning problematic memories, by confessing them, by praying, by transforming them, by recognizing the poison that is often contained in our spiritual systems and exposing them to the purifying power of God through prayer and the spiritual life. And he did much to put these ideals into action.

Days before coming to Israel on his groundbreaking pilgrimage in 2000, John Paul II held a ceremony asking for forgiveness for many of the wrongs committed by the Church throughout the centuries. There was much to recognize, own and ask for forgiveness. This includes the attitudes of the Church to various minorities, some of its aggressive tactics, and, among other things, how it has dealt with the Jews.

In this spirit, he offered the following prayer:

God of our Fathers,

You chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations.

We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history

Have caused these children of yours to suffer

Asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to

Genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.


This prayer recognizes the wrong of the past committed by Christians, thereby bringing it to light.

It also identifies a particular attitude in relation to it ­ sadness, the kind of sadness that establishes distance towards what one must avoid. It then proceeds to request forgiveness and concludes with a hopeful note ­ commitment to brotherhood with the people of the covenant. Calling Jews the people of the covenant is itself significant. It affirms the enduring validity of Judaism and its spiritual relationship with God, a fact denied by centuries of Christian thinking.

In an act of dramatic genius, Saint John Paul made a gesture of lasting endurance, that contributed much to the healing of memory. Several days later he was the first Pope to visit the Western Wall.

On that occasion he used the spiritual language of Jewish gestures and placed this very same prayer in the cracks of the Western Wall. The act of recognition was complete. The impact for healing memory significant; the prospects for hope much raised.

As we celebrate John Paul’s canonization we realize that reflecting on memory and transforming it to hope is a challenge all our religions must engage in.

Upcoming posts of this blog will explore further aspects of this process, from the perspectives of multiple religions.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.