The pontiff's moving expression of solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust, denunciation of anti-Semitism and call for mutual respect among Christians and Jews fell short of Israeli expectations of some form of apology for the Vatican's conduct during World War II, but that won't diminish the fact that as Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak noted in his salutary response John Paul II has done more in his 22-year papacy than centuries of predecessors to repair Rome's relationship with the Jews, whom the Church had until only too recently vilified as Christ-killers. "He's stopped apologizing and is talking about what ought to be," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "And whether or not that's sufficient for some Jewish critics, it's extraordinarily powerful and consistent with the very best of what he's tried to do in relation to the Jews."
Whatever his personal convictions, the pontiff remains the head of a massive, thousand-year-old global theological bureaucracy that isn't particularly prone to self-criticism or changes of direction. His millennial efforts to force the church to confront its failings not only in respect to Jews, but also in relation to Muslims, Christians of other denominations and even sometimes its own flock are the exception rather than the norm in papal history. But a specific apology for the actions of a predecessor currently in the process of beatification (Pius XII) may have been beyond his reach, given the complex and contested process by which the Vatican makes decisions. The absence of an apology for Pius XII didn't in any way diminish the power in the spectacle of the bishop of Rome making a heartfelt expression of solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust, before being embraced by a weeping survivor he'd known since his boyhood. This on a day when, in contrast to previous pontiffs who'd taught that the Jews' exile from their land had been punishment for the death of Jesus, John Paul II took the unprecedented step of blessing the state of Israel. The Polish pontiff, who grew up among Jews, may well have succeeded in turning the page on his church's relationship with the faith out of which it grew.