Pope Benedict XVI will make a historic visit to a New York synagogue the day before Passover.
On April 18, Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side will become the first American Jewish house of worship to host a papal visit.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made the announcement Thursday.
A report in the Milan daily Il Giornale said the pope will meet at the synagogue with its rabbi, Arthur Schneier, and a group of Jewish children. Separately, the pope is due to meet with Jewish leaders the day before, April 17, in Washington.
“He’s going to offer Passover greetings to the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel,” Schneier told JTA. “It’s a message of goodwill and we should welcome it.”
Schneier said the idea for the synagogue visit arose when he “happened to be at the Vatican” discussing the pope’s American trip. The rabbi would not say whether the suggestion came from him or the Vatican.
The visit, part of the pope’s six-day visit to New York and Washington beginning April 15, comes at a fraught moment in Jewish-Christian relations.
Last year the pope allowed the reintroduction of a centuries-old prayer for the conversion of the Jews, a move that sparked fears of a major setback in Catholic-Jewish relations. A revised version, released by the Vatican in February, removed some of the prayer’s most incendiary parts but retained the call for Jewish conversion.
The pope presented the prayer’s reintroduction as an attempt at “interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church,” a reference to traditionalist Catholics who never accepted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
But to Jewish ears the prayer — part of the Latin, or Tridentine, Mass — suggested a departure from the Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms, including the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which absolved the Jews of culpability for the killing of Jesus and recognized the Jewish covenant with God.
“After the Good Friday prayer, Jews should not be running to kiss the hem of the Vatican,” said Rabbi Gerald Meister, who advises the Israeli Foreign Ministry on issues of Jewish-Christian relations. “It’s a matter of Jewish honor. The Vatican owes the Jewish people an explanation of why it did what it did, which puts into question entirely the Nostra Aetate document and the understanding of covenant theology.”
That explanation may be forthcoming, according to Rabbi David Rosen, who told JTA this week that the Vatican was preparing to issue a letter aimed at easing Jewish concerns that the Church wants to convert them.
“If we have confirmation that it is an epistemological prayer and implies no change in Jewish-Catholic relations, then I think we should be content with that and continue dialogue as before,” said Rosen, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
Recent signals from the Vatican suggest it is attempting to distinguish between the theological integrity of the prayer, which it is standing behind, and its practical implications for proselytizing, which it is renouncing.
Rosen said that Cardinal Waltar Kaspar, the head of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, recently explained that the prayer relates to theology concerning the end of time, not present-day proselytizing.
Kaspar reportedly said last month that the prayer “is entirely correct from a theological perspective.”
During his trip, Pope Benedict is also slated to meet with Muslim leaders, a group with which he also has fences to mend after his 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th century emperor who said the prophet Muhammad’s contribution to the world was “things only evil and inhuman.”
The pope is also scheduled to hold masses at Nationals Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York, in addition to a meeting with President Bush at the White House, a prayer stop at ground zero in Lower Manhattan and an address to the United Nations.