On Tuesday, the rabbi went to see the Pope. Next year in Jerusalem, he proposed.
“I hope divine providence will one day allow me to go again as a pilgrim to the Holy Land,” Pope John Paul II replied with thanks to Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Israel.
The Pope and the rabbi, two men of faith sprung from shared Polish roots, met in friendship Tuesday at a historic high-water mark of relations between their two religions.
After long, painful, distrusting centuries, negotiations are under way that should soon result in formal diplomatic ties for the first time between the Holy See and the State of Israel.
A Vatican communique said the “very cordial” meeting had a “special significance” in light of this month’s agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“He said he appreciates the efforts we have made for peace in the Middle East,” Lau said after the meeting.
When Lau noted John Paul’s role in helping to ring down the Iron Curtain, the pontiff shrugged off the praise. But the first chief rabbi of Israel ever to meet a Pope insisted.
“You are an important messenger of the Almighty,” Lau said he told John Paul.
En route home to Jerusalem from Milan, Italy, site of an inter-religion conference, Lau, the religious leader of Israel’s Jews of European descent, journeyed to the papal summer palace at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome for what turned out to be a meeting of minds.
“He spoke a long time about the tragedy of the Jewish people and . . . of the obligation of the world to ensure a future for the Jewish people,” Lau said.
John Paul also stressed the vehemence of his opposition to anti-Semitism, Lau said. “I said that Jews everywhere appreciate his warm and friendly approach.”
In Milan, Lau said he would be happy to welcome John Paul “to the Palace of Solomon and to my own home.” The palace is the headquarters of Judaism in Israel.
Like John Paul, Lau was born near Krakow, Poland. Now 56, a strapping father of eight in a tall black hat who dwarfed the stooped Pope at their picture session, Lau was a skeletal 8-year-old when he was liberated from the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald near the end of World War II.
One purpose of the rabbi’s visit was to renew an invitation to visit Israel extended last year by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who said at the time that John Paul “was moved almost to tears” by the offer.
“The Pope himself mentioned that it was his wish to visit the holy places in the land of Israel,” Lau told reporters at Fiumicino Airport.
“I asked him about when, and he said, ‘The time is approaching,’ ” Lau said. John Paul did not give any indication of a date, the rabbi said.
A spate of published reports here in recent days suggested that John Paul might go to Israel around Christmastime or in January, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1964 visit by Pope Paul VI.
Privately, senior Vatican officials are discouraging speculation about a year-end visit. But few in Vatican City would bet against a papal visit to the Holy Land sometime in 1994.
“He can come any time he wants,” Avi Pazner, Israel’s ambassador to Italy, said Tuesday.
Presumably John Paul would wait until after diplomatic relations have been established.