Italy’s Jews Welcome Forthcoming Visit of the Pope to Rome Synagogue
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Italy’s Jews Welcome Forthcoming Visit of the Pope to Rome Synagogue

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The Jewish community has warmly welcomed the Vatican’s announcement Monday that Pope John Paul II will visit Rome’s main synagogue next month.

But while this is viewed as an “historic gesture” which may well be the first Papal visit ever to a Jewish house of worship, the feeling among Jewish leaders is that it will be up to the Pontiff whether the occasion is merely “symbolic” or contributes substantively to Catholic-Jewish relations.

“It could be a fantastic step forward,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, “or it could be a perpetuation of ambiguities.” She was referring to certain fundamental issues that remain unresolved after more than 20 years of Vatican-Jewish dialogue that began after Vatican Council II in 1965.

The chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Vallis, announced at a press conference Monday that the Pope’s visit would take place in the afternoon of April 13. He said it would be the first such visit in living memory, though he could not be certain it would be an historic precedent.


The Jewish community, in a statement released Monday night, expressed its “satisfaction at the decision of Pope John Paul II to visit the synagogue of Rome,” adding that “this will mark an important step in the direction of an ever more rewarding dialogue.”

The Rome synagogue was the scene of a traumatic event in October, 1982 when worshippers were attacked by Arab terrorists with machineguns and grenades. A two-year-old boy, Stefano Tache, was killed and 34 persons were wounded.

More than a year earlier, on February 9, 1981, the spiritual leader of the synagogue, Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, met with the Pope at church adjacent to the old Jewish ghetto, about 100 yards from the synagogue. From that time on, a Papal visit to the synagogue itself seemed more and more in the realm of possibility, awaiting only the appropriate “conditions.”


Zevi stressed in her remarks Monday that the conditions could never have materialized but for the changes in Catholic-Jewish relations engendered by Vatican II. Yet there is disappointment in Jewish circles here and abroad that the changes have not progressed further than they have. One issue that wrankles Jews is the Vatican’s persistent refusal to extend formal recognition to the State of Israel.

This was one of the main criticisms vented by a Jewish ecumenical group in June, 1985 over a just published Vatican document called “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching the Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.”

According to the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the Notes fail to acknowledge the religious significance of Israel to the Jewish people and refer only briefly and superficially to the Holocaust.

The IJCIC called them a retrogression from the historic “Nostra Aerate” (Our Times) which emerged from Vatican Council 11 in 1964 and the December 1, 1974 ” Guidelines and Suggestions for the Application of the Declaration Nostra Aerate.”

Dr. Joseph Lichten, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith’s liaison with the Vatican, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Monday that the Pope’s forthcoming visit to the synagogue “will certainly be a historical event. Never before has a Pope set foot in a Jewish place of worship.” He added, “I did not expect this to come about so soon, but I am pleasantly touched that it has.”


A Papal visit to the synagogue has been long considered a necessary “next step” in the interreligious dialogue, by Jews and by enlightened Christians. But it was never openly solicited by Rome’s Jewish community.

The Jewish community, which has existed for 2,000 years and survived more than a millenia under the “shadow” of the Vatican, in good times and bad, has always felt itself to be the “wronged party.” It therefore considered it inappropriate to take the “first step” for this potently symbolic move.

It would be up to the Vatican to make the move, the Jews always felt, considering the historical context of Jewish relations with the Church of Rome. The groundwork was laid by the Pope’s visit several months ago to the Waldensian Protestant Church in Rome, another historical “first.”

John Paul 11, moreover, has received more world Jewish leaders in audience than any of his predecessors. Wherever possible, he has met with Jewish leaders abroad in the course of his considerable travels.

The main synagogue is an historical landmark in Rome. Located in the Lungotevere Cenci, near the River Tiber, it was laid down in 1900. On July 2, 1904, it was officially visited by King Victor Emanuel Ill. it was formally dedicated on July 28 of that year at ceremonies attended by the highest authorities of the Italian State and the Rome municipality.

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