Background Report Rome Jewry Prepares for First Papal Visit to a Jewish House of Worship
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Background Report Rome Jewry Prepares for First Papal Visit to a Jewish House of Worship

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Rome’s Jewish community, the oldest diaspora community in Europe, is agog this week with preparations for one of the major events of its 2,000 year history–the visit by Pope John Paul II this Sunday to the main synagogue near the banks of the Tiber.

The Polish-born Pontiff will be the first Pope ever to set foot into a Jewish house of worship. Apart from being an historic precedent, the visit will have tremendous symbolic implications and may prove to be a giant step in the long, arduous, and sometimes painful journey toward Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, begun at Vatican Council II 20 years ago.

Rome’s 18,000 Jews, while elated, also have misgivings and a strong sense of skepticism about what the Papal visit will accomplish. Those feelings derive from historical memories of religious and personal humiliations under Papal rule, from theological anti-Semitism over the centuries and from their strong emotional ties to the State of Israel which the Vatican still declines to recognize.


Nevertheless, preparations for the visit were at fever pitch this week. The main synagogue has become like the backstage of a theater rehearsing for a premier performance. There are a dozen directors, organized into a dozen ad hoc committees, each assigned a special task–press relations, ceremonials, invitations, programs and even traffic direction.

The visit is taking place midway between Easter and Passover. It is expected to draw huge throngs and create tremendous traffic jams. The synagogue is located in the heart of Rome, bounded by the Tiber on one side and the old ghetto and the Piazza Venezia on the other.

The media is already arriving. Photographers mingling with curious passersby on the Lungotevere outside the synagogue were busy all week immortalizing what is in fact immortal: the temple’s plaques commemorating the martyrdom of the 8,000 Italian Jews–more than 2,000 from Rome–murdered by the Nazis during World War II; and the memorial plaque for two-year-old Stefano Tache, killed in a terrorist machinegun and grenade attack on worshippers in October, 1982, 40 years after the Holocaust.


The program for the visit has already been established in close cooperation between Vatican officials, Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and other leaders of the Jewish community. It is aimed at conveying a spiritual message while adhering to the strict limits required by mutual respect between the separate religious identities involved.

There will be a religious “meeting”, not a regular “service.” This will allow women to be seated with men which is normally not the case in a synagogue run according to Orthodox tradition as practiced in Rome.

When the Pope enters the synagogue he will be greeted by a chorus chanting Psalm 150, accompanied by the temple’s organ–an ancient tradition. Verses from Genesis 15, 1-7 will then be read in Hebrew and Italian, followed by verses from Micah 4,1-5.

Rabbi Toaff will speak first, then the Pope. After his speech, Toaff will read Psalm 124, following which the chorus will chant “Ani Ma’amin,” Maimonides’ First Article of Faith–“I believe in the coming of the Messiah and even though he delay, I will await him until his coming.”

This devotion has a special poignancy in that it was chanted by Jews at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau as they were led to the gas chambers.


A moment of silence will follow. The chorus will chant Psalm 16. The Pope, accompanied by a small group of Christians and Jews and representatives of the media, will walk upstairs to the rabbi’s study where John Paul II and Rabbi Toaff will hold a “private” conversation that will be seen and heard around the world.

Toaff has hailed the Pope’s upcoming visit as the first truly historical event in Catholic-Jewish relations since Vatican Council II. It will engender, he said, a new sense of “respect, equality and esteem towards the people from which Christianity draws its origins.”


But despite Toaff’s assurances, there are some strong impediments to Roman Jewry’s unqualified trust in the positive import of John Paul’s historical gesture. There are unhappy memories of the past.

About 80 percent of Rome’s Jews are shop and boutique owners, most of them descendants of humble rag peddlers forced to observe dusk-to-dawn curfews imposed on the ghetto by Papal decree until 1870. Even later they were subjected to forced sermons in “ghetto churches” and occasional forced conversion of their children. Perhaps the only Roman Jews who do not have an ingrained resentment against the “pre-conciliar church” are refugees from Libya, expelled by Muammar Qaddafi in 1967.

The Vatican’s failure to recognize Israel is another issue Jews find difficult to reconcile. A young Sephardic woman of Egyptian origin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “The Pope in our synagogue. When I heard, I was very happy. I thought, how beautiful. Now all the priests in the world will take the Pope as an example and convey a new respect for the Jewish faith and people to their congregations. Anti-Semitic feelings will die out.

“But then my friends made me reflect. The Vatican still doesn’t recognize Israel. To me, Israel is like a mother. How can the Pope come into my home and not recognize my mother? He makes me feel offended for her.”


There are also unresolved issues on the religious level. Although John Paul II has received more Jews in audience than any of his predecessors and has made numerous, moving references to the Holocaust, his theology of the Old Testament as expressed by homilies and Vatican documents not directly related to Christian-Jewish relations contain frequent lapses into pre-conciliar linguistic concepts of Judaism that are not in harmony with the principles laid down by “Nostra Aetate” and the two subsequent documents on Christian-Jewish relations promulgated by the Holy See’s Commission for Relations With Jews/Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

This evaluation has often been expressed by Jewish leaders and experts in interreligious relations and frequent requests have been made that more sensitivity be shown for the Jewish religious conscience.


Many Jewish leaders feel that John Paul’s doubtlessly sincere message of warmth toward the Jewish people occasionally comes through distorted, or, at best, harnessed to his own–or his advisors’–theological conditioning, and the Vatican failure to give diplomatic recognition to Israel.

It is an open secret that the Pope consults with experts in writing his speeches–which may explain apparent contradictions between one speech and another. Expectations therefore are running high that the Pope’s address to the Jewish community Sunday will be guided by concepts developed by the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews and will compensate for recent lapses.

Still another issue is the strong Jewish feelings against the construction of a Carmelite convent at the Auschwitz death camp site. Toaff sent a letter to the Pope several weeks ago, signed also by the Chief Rabbis of Britain, France, Strasbourg, Zurich and Rumania noting that since the rabbis of Europe “consider this initiative inadequate to sanctify a territory that is desecrated and cursed by the murder of four million martyrs, more than half of them Jews,” no one faith should construct anything there. So far there has been no response from the Vatican.

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