VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - St. John Paul II's historic embrace of former chief rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff welcomes visitors to a new Vatican exhibition on the late Pope's compelling relationship with the Jewish people.
The moment is reminiscent of an earlier, childhood friendship that likely laid the foundation for many of the symbolic acts that John Paul II would make toward Jews as Pope.
Entitled "A Blessing to One Another," the exhibit begins with John Paul II and Toaff's embrace, which took place when the saintly Bishop of Rome became the first Pope to ever enter a synagogue April 13, 1986.
It then traces back through the history of St. John Paul II's friendship with the Jewish people, with particular emphasis on his childhood friend Jerzy Kluger.
Located at the Braccio di Carlo Magno - the left-side corridor of Saint Peter's Basilica - the exhibit was originally installed in 18 different locations in the United States, where it attracted more than 1 million visitors. It will be open in Rome until Sept. 17, 2015.
It was installed in the Vatican in honor of the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, issued Oct. 28, 1965.
A declaration on the interaction of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate marked a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Jewish-Christian relations had developed significantly under Bl. Paul VI, who was the first Pope to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, however St. John Paul II gave a definitive impetus to this new era.
Coming from the small Polish town of Wadowice, which had a strong Jewish community, John Paul II from a young age had become very close friends with Jerzy Kluger, who was Jewish.
The two lost contact with one another during the Second World War, but reconnected again in Rome, where Kluger had moved and where the then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla was taking part in the Second Vatican Council.
The story of this friendship is traced throughout the entire exhibition, with one part dedicated entirely to Kluger.
Although he passed away in 2011, Kugler recounted the story of his friendship with the late Pope in a video interview, during which he specifically recalled his first meeting John Paul right after he was elected Pope.
One of the first meetings a new elected Pope holds is with the community of his home country, and St. John Paul II held a meeting with Poles in Rome.
"I was obviously called to take part in the meeting, and I was called to greet the Pope. The meeting was warm, and Italian newspaper headlined: 'The Pope greets his Jewish friend first,'" Kruger said.
This first encounter set the tone of St. John Paul II's relationship with the Jewish community, which culminated when he became the first Pope to a visit a synagogue in 1986.
"We see the pictures of the event, of the embrace between John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff, and it seems to us something normal. But it was not normal, it was epic," the current Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said at the July 28 presentation the exhibition.
"It was the moment when the dialogue among theologians had turned into facts," he said.
The multisensory exhibit is divided into four sections, called "chapters." The first covers from 1920 to 1938, the years of Karol Wojtyla's childhood in Wadowice. The second chapter is dedicated to 1939 until 1945, the time of World War II.
It was during those years Karol Wojtyla matured is vocation, but also witnessed the suffering of the Jewish people. A section of this chapter in the exhibit shows one of the prisoner suits used in Auschwitz.
The third Chapter is wider, and goes from 1946 to 1978, which are the years of Karol Wojtyla's priesthood and his time as bishop until he was elected Pope. His papacy is explored in the fourth chapter.
A banner is also hung indicating a list of papal-firsts in St. John Paul II's relationship with the Jews.
In 1979 he was the first Pope to go to Auschwitz and pay homage to the Jewish people who died in the extermination camps; in 1986 he became the first Pope to enter a Synagogue; he was the first Pope to acknowledge the State of Israel in 1993 and was the first Pope who publicly recalled "The Shoah," or Holocaust, at the Vatican in 1994.
The banner also highlights how John Paul II was also the first Pope to host and honor a long-term Jewish friend in a Pontifical residence.
James Buchanan, a professor at Xavier University of Cincinnati, Ohio and curator of the exhibition, explained at the exhibit's launch that its message, as well as that of John Paul II, "is that the responsibility of dialogue with the other falls upon each of us. More importantly it falls upon each of us each us to pass this message on through our children."
One of the central ideas of the exhibit, he said, "is that what we teach our children, how we raise them, with whom we raise them, and how we teach them to deal with others is of critical importance to their future."
However, St. John Paul II's friendship with Kugler is the real leit motiv of the exhibition.
William Madges of St. Joseph University of Philadelphia and also a curator of the exhibit, explained that the friendship between the two was emphasized "because we believe that this special relationship, together with the Holy Father's family upbringing, created in him a profound respect for the Jewish community that remained with him his entire life."
The 10th anniversary of the St. John Paul II's death is also marked in the exhibit. The idea for the exhibition was conceived before the pontiff's death, and was presented to him as an honor for his 85th birthday.
However, St. John Paul II was never able to see how the exhibition turned out, as he died shortly before the installation was completed.