Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Bill Madges | Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Joseph's University

Interview :: Bill Madges
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Nov 2007

This month's Creative Personality is Bill Madges, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Joseph's University, and the co-creator of the exhibit, "A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People," which is on display at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia now through December 23. The exhibit is free and open to the public.


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Host: Ruth Weisberg; Production: Tat Communication:
Tom Thompson, Videographer; Sage Thompson, Lighting/Sound; Editing, Jessica Lloyd


PCG: Of your many credentials, I don't think you expected to become the accidental curator.

BM: That's exactly it. Yaffa Eliach, who's a Holocaust survivor, was a visiting professor at Xavier University in the Fall of 2003. I was Chair of the Theology Department, so we would have conversations. She started to tell me about her great admiration for Pope John Paul II, and we talked about that. And I said, "How did you get interested?" And she said, "He has this very interesting early life, both as a child in Wadowice, and as a priest. He did some very interesting things and had a very good relationship with the Jewish people." And then she asked me, "Do you think many Catholics know that?" And I said, "No, I don't think very many people know that at all." And she basically looked at me and said, "Well, we're educators, aren't we? Don't you think we should do something about that?" And that was really the beginning of this grand adventure.


PCG: I will always remember when the Pope was on the balcony shortly after he was announced as the pontiff, and his opening line was, "Be not afraid." That's your prevailing motto, isn't it?

BM: It was a big leap of faith. When we went to Rome to meet with the Pope, we also met with the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, the Israeli ambassador to Italy, and they offered their support. Ambassador Ben-Hur gave us a copy of the fundamental agreement that was signed between the Vatican and Israel that established diplomatic relations at the very end of 1993. So it was like everywhere we turned, and said, "This is our idea; this is what we're intending to do," we got tremendous support.


PCG: The late Pope certainly gave his blessing to the 'Blessing'; exhibit. Did he give any personal artifacts as well?

BM: That's an interesting story itself. We had gone there, and we were hoping that he would bless it, as well as the Chief Rabbi of Rome. We also approached the chief official in the Vatican who's responsible for Jewish-Catholic relations, Cardinal Kasper. After our papal audience, we worked through Cardinal Kasper to make a request of the Papal Household and said, "Would Pope John Paul II choose an artifact that he would loan to the exhibit as a sign of what this relationship meant to him, and let him choose what it is?" We had told John Paul II that the exhibit will open on May 18, 2005, your 85th birthday, and we offer it to you as a birthday present.

So now it's February. We're a few months away. As you may recall, in March he took seriously ill, and passed away on April 2, and we had no artifacts. At that point, the four of us concluded we weren't going to get anything. There was the funeral and the election of the new Pope. Six days before the exhibit opened in May, I got a phone call from Cardinal Kasper's assistant, Dr. Fabrizzi, who said to me, "Dr. Madges, would you still like an artifact for the exhibit?" And I said, "Sure!" And then she said, "Do you want more than one artifact?" And I said, "Sure, what do you have in mind?" I mean, we had no idea what they had selected. And finally I asked, "Can you tell me what the Holy Father had selected with Cardinal Dziwisz, his personal secretary, as the two of them had discussed this?" And she said, "'Well, we'd like to send you three things—we'd like to send you the zucchetto, the white skullcap that he wore when he went to Israel in 2000; we'd like to send you the cane that he used as he approached the Western Wall"—and right there that gives you an indication of how important this relationship was: he took something that was so significant at improving relations between the two faiths. And Dr. Fabrizzi said, "We want that to come to the exhibit, and that's on loan." And the third piece, although not as famous as the other two, but one that really touched the four of us, is one that Dr. Fabrizzi told us the Holy Father and his secretary had chosen: it was a facsimile copy of his handwritten notes of the speech he delivered on his first trip back to Poland as a pope when he went to Auschwitz. They were the extemporaneous things he wanted to add to acknowledge the suffering of the Jewish community at Auschwitz. And Dr. Fabrizzi said, "We had an exact copy made for you. That's not a loan; that's a gift to the exhibit as a sign of how important this relationship was to him."


PCG: And how did you wind up at the Kimmel Center? What a wonderful venue for an exhibit like this!

BM: Saint Joseph's University didn't have a venue on campus large enough to house it, and Father Lannon, our President, said, "Well then, let's put it somewhere where everyone in Philadelphia who's interested can find it easily!" And there's no better spot than right on Broad Street at the Kimmel Center. We're very grateful that the Kimmel Center actually partnered with us to bring this exhibit to Philadelphia.


PCG: What do you hope people will take away with them after having experienced this exhibit?

BM: We hope that it will educate people about this relationship. I think some people are surprised by the steps John Paul II took as Pope. And it seemed like they came out of the blue. For example, why did he go to the synagogue of Rome in '86? The exhibit tries to explain that by saying: if you knew about his life in Wadowice, if you knew about what he did in his relationships with the Jewish community of Krakow as a priest and bishop, then what he did as a Pope is not so surprising. And so, there's that educational element to try to make sense of what he did as a Pope, rooting it in his early relationships.


PCG: So at the heart and core of this exhibit is a personal story.

BM: At the heart of it, it's about relationships. It's about the ability to look at another person who may be different from you because of race or economic background or religion and see their humanity. To recognize in the story between Jerzy Kluger and Karol Wojtyla, what can happen in my relationship with someone who's different and saying that when I confront them as a human being, and they see me as a human being, we not only enrich each other's lives, but we can transform our local community. And that's what we're hoping people take away: this notion of what happens when we're less concerned about maintaining barriers and more concerned about building bridges. It enriches us and all around us.


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