What Pope Francis synagogue visit says about Catholic-Jewish relations

Pope Francis, left, greeting the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, during a papal visit to the city’s synagogue, Jan. 17, 2016. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

(JTA) – When Pope Francis crossed the Tiber River to visit the Great Synagogue of Rome on Sunday, he became the third pontiff to do so. But his 1.5-mile journey to the towering Tempio Maggiore showed that what was once unthinkable is now the norm.

“According to the juridical rabbinic traditions, an act repeated three times becomes ‘chazaka,’ a habit,” Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told the pontiff. “Clearly this is a concrete sign of the new era after all that happened in the past.”

John Paul II’s visit 30 years ago marked a dramatic watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. By crossing the threshold of the Tempio Maggiore, warmly embracing Rome’s then-chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, and famously referring to Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers,” the Polish-born pontiff broke down barriers that stretched back nearly 2,000 years.

The visual impact alone of the pontiff and the chief rabbi embracing sent out a powerful message of reconciliation.

During his speech to a sanctuary packed with Jewish community members and representatives of the government, international Jewish organizations, the State of Israel and other faiths, Francis reiterated John Paul II’s theme that Christianity is rooted in Judaism.

“You are, in fact, our older brothers and sisters in faith,” Francis said. Christians, he added, “to understand themselves, cannot fail to make reference to the Jewish roots, and the church, while professing salvation through faith in Christ, recognizes the irrevocability of the Ancient Alliance and constant and faithful love of God for Israel.”

Formal dialogue between Catholics and Jews had begun only two decades before the visit by Pope John Paul II with the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration repudiating the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus. The document also stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics, and called for interfaith contacts.

For centuries earlier, as Brown University historian David Kertzer wrote in his 2001 book, “The Popes Against the Jews,” the Vatican had “worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place — barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely.” Jews were confined to ghettos and often subjected to expulsions, forced conversions and other persecutions. In Rome, the Great Synagogue stands where the papal rulers kept Jews confined to a crowded ghetto until 1870.

John Paul made fostering relations between Catholics and Jews a cornerstone of his papacy.

“What he did was to assert that one could not be a Christian without recognition of one’s roots in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a longtime participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogue and a former vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a key adviser to John Paul and an architect of his theological policy, followed John Paul’s lead. But Benedict lacked his predecessor’s charisma, and some of his policies strained relations with the Jewish world.

His visit to the Rome synagogue in January 2010 reaffirmed the continuity of the Vatican’s commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue. But it came amid tensions sparked by his decision to move controversial World War II-era PopePius XII — whom critics accuse of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust — closer to sainthood.

Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, the then-president of the Italian rabbinical assembly, even boycotted the synagogue ceremony in protest.

The Argentina-born Francis had a close relationship with the Jewish community even before his election to the papacy, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Since becoming pontiff in March 2013, he has consistently demonstrated attention to Jewish issues and won over many skeptics with his warmth. He visited Israel, along with Jordan and the West Bank, in 2014.

In May 2014, Francis defused the Pius issue to some extent by making clear that he had no intention of fast-tracking his sainthood. And a Vatican document released in December to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate reiterated at length how Christianity is rooted in Judaism. It also renewed pledges of cooperation and said the church as an institution should not try to convert Jews.

Prior to Sunday’s visit, Bretton-Granatoor told JTA that Francis “is wholly at ease with the Jewish community and Jewish life. His entrance into that synagogue will not be dissimilar to a Jew entering a synagogue in a new place — new, yet familiar.”

On Sunday, Francis addressed his personal feeling of closeness to Holocaust survivors, a group of whom were seated in the first row of the sanctuary, and noted the experience of the Holocaust must serve as a lesson for the present and the future.

“The Shoah teaches us that we always need the greatest vigilance to intervene promptly in defense of human dignity and peace,” he said.

Francis also said the extraordinary rapprochement between Jews and Catholics over the past 50 years should serve as a model for other faiths.

“Conflicts, wars, violence and injustices open deep wounds in humanity and call on us to reinforce the commitment to peace and justice,” Francis said.

“The violence of man against man is in contradiction with any religion worthy of the name, and in particular with the three great monotheistic religions,” he said. “Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother regardless of his origins or religious belief.”