AJC Analysis: Pope Benedict’s Visit to Rome Synagogue
By Rabbi David Rosen
ROME – The TV images of the Pope's visit to the Rome synagogue reflected the significance of the occasion, but could not capture the atmosphere inside, which was quite electric, especially because of the controversy surrounding the event.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI took place under the cloud of his advancement of "the cause" of the canonization of Pope Pius XII, which touches on the profound and raw nerve of Jewry's greatest tragedy and has a particular sensitivity in Rome, where Jews were deported to camps "from under the Pope's window." There also were the crises brought about by his lifting of the excommunication of the Lefevbrist "bishops," including Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson; and the Pope's wider authorization of the Tridentine Latin liturgy, with its Easter-time prayer for the conversion of the Jews. In addition, certain developments in the U.S. Catholic Church and elsewhere led many people to question the sincerity of this papacy's commitment to advancing Catholic-Jewish relations along the path of John Paul II's groundbreaking initiatives and declarations.
In addition to the text of Pope Benedict XVI's address in the synagogue that sought to lay these doubts to rest, the warm greetings and public expressions of already well-established friendships between Catholic and Jewish leadership present – not only from Italy but, in particular, from Israel – added to the historic significance of the event and gave it a festive and celebratory character.
There were a number of especially notable points in the Pope's address. He frequently used the designation "People of the Covenant" to describe the Jewish community and, notably in the context of the Shoah, called Jews "the people of the covenant of Moses." He emphasized that, as opposed to any other religion, Judaism has an inherent and eternal covenantal relationship with God. Furthermore, in his call to Christians to learn from traditional Jewish understanding of shared Scripture, he categorically clarified the Church's view of the Jewish people not only as the living authentic bearer of the Divine message with its own integrity, but as having profound spiritual and educational value for the Church itself. And, to illustrate this, he included notable quotations from Jewish sources.
Benedict further highlighted the progress made in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past forty years, and, in particular, the work of the International Liaison Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations (the Jewish party of which is IJCIC, the Jewish umbrella organization I chaired until this summer, and whose current chairman, Rabbi Richard Marker, was present in the synagogue), and the Bilateral Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See, which commenced its ninth meeting the next day. The members of this commission, on which I serve as representative of AJC, were on the dais of the synagogue in front of the Holy Ark. Behind them were their Catholic counterparts from Italy and Israel together with major Italian Jewish and Catholic religious leaders, providing impressive testimony of close bonds of friendship, mutual learning and cooperation.
The Pope's words concerning the Shoah and hostility towards Jews and Judaism were unequivocal. Quoting from the Vatican document "We Remember," as well as from his predecessor's prayer for forgiveness, Benedict reiterated condemnation of the "failings of…sons and daughters" of the Church "that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism; asked for forgiveness from God for "those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer"; and again expressed his commitment "to genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant."
Of course, there were references to the debate over the role of the Holy See during the period of the Shoah. The Chief Rabbi of Rome made a subtle but profound reference to the guilt of silence, and the President of the Rome Jewish community was explicit concerning Pius XII. While Benedict XVI acknowledged that "many remained indifferent" in the face of Nazi brutality, he also asserted that "the Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.” This issue will undoubtedly remain one of tension and debate between and even within both the Jewish and Catholic communities, and while it is essential that there be a comprehensive and objective scholarly review of all archival material, it is doubtful that even this will resolve the debate.
Nevertheless, as far as Catholic-Jewish relations are concerned generally, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the synagogue in Rome was a genuine milestone, alleviating many fears and suspicions and reinvigorating the historic transformation of this relationship in our times.
Rabbi Rosen is AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs.