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A Pope Comes Calling PDF Print E-mail
Jan 20, 2010 at 12:51 AM

Guess who came to visit?

Sunday was a day of pomp and circumstance on Rome's Lungotevere river road with rabbis in toqued hats and white and black robes waiting outside Rome's imposing Tempio Maggiore and then, for the second time in modern history, smilingly accompanying inside, as their guest, a Roman Catholic Pope. At the closing part of a two-hour ceremony, where he shared a fruit-bedecked podium with Italian Jewish dignitaries, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the horrors of the Shoah, said the bonds linking Judaism and Christianity - he specifically mentioned the Ten Commandments - were indelible and urged that the festering sores of anti-Semitism be forever healed.

In a 15-minute speech, the last of the two-hour ceremony that was broadcast live by two major networks (I watched the entire thing and it was fascinating), Benedict said the Shoah could never be forgotten and made a it clear that he would continue the Holy See's dedication to improved relations with Judaism. He spoke of the landmark Second Vatican Council as "a clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant stage."


Grand Rabbi Di Segni (left)

More than 1000 people jammed the synagogue including the few remaining members of the small group of 17 Roman Jews (out of 1024) who survived deportation to the Nazi death camp Birkenau. Among those present, for the most part members of the community, were Nobel Prize winning medical researcher Rita Levi di Montalcino, who  will be 101 years old in April, and former Grand Rabbi, Elio Toaff, now 97. Two former fascist party  members, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno and Speaker of the House Gianfranco Fini were present, wearing yamulkas like all the men, as was Prime Minister Berlusconi’s representative, undersecretary Gianni Letta.

The warm greetings between the exponents of the two religions, plus the Pope’s decision – a first - to lay magnificent flower arrangements below the plaques commemorating the Nazi deportation on October 16, 1943 and the killing of a two year old boy in a 1982 attack by Palestinian terrorists (red roses in the first case, white lilies in the second) belied the fact that not all is 100% A-OK between the two groups.
The pontiff’s visit to the imposing temple that since 1904 has been home to the city’s largely orthodox (not to be confused with Hasidic, please) Jewish community, Italy’s largest, was held despite the existence of sharp disagreement over the Roman Catholic Church’s plans to soon take the next step in making the controversial wartime pope, Pius XII, a saint.

Many Jews deplore what Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Rome Jewish Community, referred to in the afternoon’s opening speech as “the silence of Pius XII” on the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews and some top rabbis stayed away from the ceremony in protest. (Mr Pacifici, however,  took pains to clarify that many Italian Jews owed their survival to Roman Catholics. He said that he himself  was here, “speaking to you today, only because my father and my uncle were given shelter by the Santa Marta Convent of Florence”. Another of Mr. Pacifici’s uncles, the wartime Grand Rabbi of Genoa and his wife died in Auschwitz.)

The chief rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni, who presided over the event and was, wearing a priceless, antique tallis on his shoulders, and who was the first to greet the Pope at the synagogue door, warned that while “the silence of God” is inscrutable, “the silence of man is on a different level” and “neither does it escape justice.”

The Holy See, on the other hand,  defends Pius’ record (Pope Benedict said Sunday that “the  Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way”) and historians are divided, especially since the  Vatican  has so far refused to make public the wartime documents that could shed greater light on Pius’ thoughts and actions. In contrast, another bone of contention, still extant at the time of the last papal visit, has been removed; in 1992, diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican were established.  As an institution, the Italian Jewish Community to which 35,000 of Italy’s 45,000 Jews belong, is extremely pro-Israel, too much so for my own personal taste.

Sunday’s visit by the current, German-born Pope, who was accompanied by several cardinals, came almost a full 24 years after the groundbreaking visit by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1986. At that time Polish pontiff made history by coming to the synagogue to pay his respects  (you can be sure that in earlier centuries a visit to a synagogue by a cleric would have boded no good indeed) and by insisting that Christians should consider Jews “our dearly beloved brothers….our elder brothers”. I was there covering the event and I can say that it was a truly moving occasion.

The current Pope, who is primarily an intellectual and a theologian, alas possesses nothing of John Paul’s warmth and charisma. But he did make an effort to echo his predecessor’s request for forgiveness for the Church for the “errors of its sons and daughters” and for “all that which in some way may have opened the door to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism”. In 2000, in a visit to Israel’s Wailing Wall, John Paul publically asked for forgiveness for all those who had wronged the Jewish people.

Anyone who knows the history of Rome’s Jews could not but be touched by Sunday’s ceremony. How to forget, for example, that the Tempio Maggiore was built on ground previously occupied by one of the worst sections of the Jewish Ghetto into which a 1555 decree by Pope Paul IV had segregated the Jews of Rome? How to forget that a people (the Jews of Rome) whose history goes back over 2000 years and who represent the oldest Jewish community of the diaspora, were forced by  Pope Paul’s order to live in economic and cultural misery? And what to say when on realizes that this situation of injustice and discrimination came to an end only 140 years ago when, in 1870, Rome became the capital of a united Italy, the temporal role of the papacy came to an end, and the walls of the Ghetto were finally razed to the ground.

1986: John Paul and Rabbi Toaff



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