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Pope Meets Chief Rabbi of Rome, First Time in 2000 Years That Such a Meeting Has Taken Place

February 10, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

— Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, met today in what the Jewish community officially termed “an event of historical import” and which most observers saw as a calculated effort by the Vatican to enhance its relations with the Jewish community which, generally, have been good.

The encounter took place in a building adjacent to the Church of San Carlo Ai Catinari on the Piazza Cairoli, in the heart of the Roman ghetto, the oldest in Europe. The Pontiff was accompanied by Cardinal Ugo Poletti and Msgr. Jorge Mejia, Secretary of The Vatican Secretariate for Religious Relations with the Jews. Toaff had with him Assistand Chief Rabbi Alberto Piattelli and a small delegation representing Rome’s Jewish community.

It was the first time in the 2000 years of variegated relations between the Church of Rome and the Jewish community that a chief rabbi of the city has accepted an invitation to meet with a Pope. Although Rome’s Jews never suffered pogroms or similar persecutions, they have been, in past centuries, subjected to many levels of humiliation, including forced attendance at sermons aimed at their conversion in the very church compound that was the scene of today’s meeting.

Just two months ago, the Pope’s second Encyclical dealing with distortions of justice in the modern world, drew a sharp reaction from Jewish circles because of its reference to the Biblical injunction, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, “as” the form of distortion of justice” at the time of Jesus.

The Pope’s decision to meet with the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the simultaneous publication today in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano of an editorial entitled “Dives In Misericordia: An Encyclical for Christians and Jews” indicated in an oblique way a desire to assuage the feelings of Jews who felt offended by the earlier Encyclical which, by the very nature of an Encyclical, cannot be re-written. As observers with experience in Vatican diplomacy know, the Church leaves nothing to pure coincidence.

Toaff told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency later that “This was a first contact. To evaluate its impact, we will have to wait for future developments.” That cautious appraisal was shared by others in the Jewish community who had hoped the Pope would make some specific apologetic reference to past relations between the Church and the Jewish community.


The Pope, however, limited his comments to generalities. He said in effect that it was good for mutual relations to emphasize the present and above all the future. He presented Toaff with a silver Vatican medal and the other members with copper medals. He spoke of the Holocaust, the great sufferings of the Jews, the common religious heritage that unites Catholics and Jews and on themes touched by the rabbi in his speech which stressed the issues on which Catholics and Jews are united.

“There are manifold elements we hold in common in the struggle we are forced to conduct in the world surrounding us,” Toaff said, “a struggle for the affirmation of the dignity of man, intended as a mirror of the Divine image, a struggle for the right to life from its very first conception, recognizing the right to give or take it away only to God.”

That reference by Toaff to the common position taken by Catholics and Jews, at least the Orthodox, against abortion was evidently appreciated by the Pope, especially as the right of choice in this matter has become a heated political issue in Italy.

Toaff also spoke of a common “struggle for the affirmation of the values of the family, its unity and its morality, a struggle against the plague of drugs which kill the weak and rootless, and a struggle for the realization of society that is more just, where all can share those goods that God has conceded to man…And finally, the struggle for the rights of man and his religious liberty.”

A statement issued after the meeting by the Rome Jewish Community declared: “In the moment in which a Roman Pontiff meets the Chief Rabbi of Rome and representatives of the Roman Jewish Community near the area which for over 2000 years witnessed infinite pain and both ancient and recent mourning, the Jews of Rome recognize this encounter as an event of historical import and the real point of departure for a new chapter in the relations of the great monotheistic religions.”

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