Thursday, June 14, 2007

Celebrating "Bridges"

Some months back, you read here of Dr Lena Allen-Shore -- the Polish-born, Philly-based philosopher, poet, Holocaust survivor and unlikely confidant of Pope John Paul II who worked alongside the late pontiff in his quest to build bridges to the Jewish people.

It's no secret that the church is the daughter of the synagogue. And so, in that light, Lena's commitment to increased friendship and cooperation between Christians and their elder brethren was feted anew yesterday at the Washington monument that bears Wojtyla's name, in a gathering headlined by herself, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, and the papal nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who's built many of his own bridges of goodwill and understanding over seven years as the Vatican's representative to the Holy Land... and six years in Indonesia... not to mention his 15 months in the States -- where the Pope's bridges now extend even to Deepak Chopra.
"She entered and survived the Holocaust," Keeler told the gathering of about 60 people at the center's modern rotunda, recalling how Allen-Shore masqueraded as a Catholic in her native Poland during World War II, and vowed as a teenager to devote herself to "building bridges" if she survived.

The occasion was the release of the third edition of Building Bridges, Allen-Shore's biographical account (with poetry) of her and John Paul's childhoods outside Krakow, Poland, and how their very different paths crossed in old age....

The new, oversize edition of Building Bridges, published by Cathedral Press, includes a brief note that John Paul penned to Allen-Shore in 2003, upon publication of the first edition.

"Thank you for seeing deep into my thoughts and understanding the intentions guiding my actions," he wrote, and he praised her for having written it "with heart."

John Paul died in April 2005. Allen-Shore was among a handful of people invited to view his body in the papal palace before it went on public view.

"The Holy Father believed everyone on the planet belongs to the family of man," she told the crowd at the center yesterday, before reading excerpts from several of her poems about him.

She was followed by Sambi, a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps and the papal representative to the United States.

"As a diplomat, I should be a cool person, not a victim of emotion," he said and laughed. But he began having doubts about his diplomatic cool, he said, when John Paul visited the Holocaust Memorial and Western Wall in Jerusalem in March 2000 and "everyone was crying."

It was a historic moment in the long, often unhappy history of Catholic-Jewish relations, said Sambi, who at the time had been papal nuncio to Israel.

Sambi recalled how, before that papal trip to Jerusalem, John Paul had stunned him with an embarrassing question.

"He said, 'Pietro, do you love the Jews?' "

Sambi said he was so surprised he did not know how to answer. John Paul filled the awkwardness with a story.

"He said that when he was 15 [in Wadowice, outside Krakow], he saw a great number of his Jewish friends disappearing" at the hands of the Nazis, "and he said, 'I could do nothing. But now I can do something.' "

Afterward he found himself in conversation with a stranger from Philadelphia, pouring out to her "my love for Jerusalem."
...where, as he often notes, he "walked in the footsteps of Jesus," seeing something different along the Via Crucis every time.
The stranger was Allen-Shore, whose empathy and compassion, he said, kept the conversation going for nearly nearly two hours.

Sambi then read aloud from Allen-Shore's book her account of that day, and her own recollection of John Paul inserting a note of prayer into the "wailing wall" of Jerusalem's long-ago demolished Second Temple.

"And you can read about that day in this book," he said.

PHOTO: Elizabeth Robertson/
Philadelphia Inquirer