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An historic (but also a normal) visit

· On the Holy Father's meeting with the Jewish Community of Rome ·

The following is the translation of an article that Prof. Giovanni Maria Vian, Editor-in-Chief of L’Osservatore Romano wrote for “Vita e Pensiero”, the two-monthly journal of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. A summary of the text was published in the January issue of “Pagine Ebraiche”, the monthly of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

The visit Benedict XVI has paid to the Jews of Rome is an important gesture because it confirms once again the Catholic Church's openness and friendship towards the Jewish People. This is also shown by Pope Ratzinger's return to embrace in spirit the most meaningful places of the oldest community of the Western Diaspora – such as the ancient ghetto and the Great Synagogue. This settlement dates back to well before the arrival in the imperial city of Jesus' first followers, who came here in the 40s of the first century.

Thus began – about 15 years before Paul described in his Letter to the Christians of Rome the mysterious relationship between the two peoples  –  a history of contiguity and closeness but also of rivalry and clashes, marked by quarrels and by friendship, by curiosity and by suffering, by reciprocal attraction and by reciprocal ignorance.

This is what Suetonius would seem to have testified with regard to the expulsion of the Jews from the city because of the turbulence – which stemmed, precisely, from the proclamation of Christ ( impulsore Chresto). Moreover, it is also what normally happens among members of the same family and even between brothers, as the Jews and Christians are, whether they wish to recognize it or not.

Despite the rigid attitudes of both parties, despite the Christian anti-Judaism, moreover radically different from the pagan anti-Semitism of both the ancient world and the modern, contemporary world which resulted in the tragedy of the Shoah. The Catholic Church of Pius xii countered the Shoah as best she could,  with the silent – and sometimes heroic – resistance of charity, which saved a great many human lives.

And in the Ghetto of Rome, Benedict xvi paid homage to the victims of the dreadful persecution, as he has unequivocally done several times, in particular at Auschwitz, and several times in Israel.

Few 20th-century Catholics have done as much as Joseph Ratzinger – as theologian, as Bishop, as the director of the institution that safeguards Catholic Doctrine and now as Pope – to bring Jews and Christians closer.

Benedict xvi himself recalled this, almost with indignation, in his Letter to the Catholic Bishops after the remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrian Bishops, which backfired on him due to intentional exploitation: “A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council – steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support”.

Ratzinger's decision is rooted in  the war years, in his aversion to the pagan ideology of National Socialism and in his formation as a young man. Important in this regard are his memories of the time he spent at the Seminary of Freising in the immediate post-war years – published in his biographical profile in 1997 and concerning the period prior to his episcopate:

“No one doubted that the Church was the place of our hopes. Despite the many human weaknesses, she was the pole of opposition to the destructive ideology of the Nazi dictatorship; she stood firm, even in the Hell that had enveloped the powerful, thanks to her strength that comes from eternity. We had the proof that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. We knew firsthand what ‘the gates of hell’ were – and we were also able to see with our own eyes that the house built upon the rock stood firm”.

Particularly important to the young seminarian in his understanding of Judaism was the teaching of the biblical scholar Friedrich Stummer in Munich, as Ratzinger emphasized in a passage so interesting that it is worth citing at length:

“In this way the Old Testament became important to me and I understood ever better that the New Testament”, he stresses, “is not the book of another religion, that appropriated the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, almost as if they constituted a sort of preliminary which, all things considered, was  secondary. The New Testament is none other than an interpretation, based on the history of Jesus, of ‘laws, prophets and writings’ which in Jesus' time had not yet attained their mature form as a definitive canon but were still open, and hence were presented to the disciples as testimony in favour of Jesus himself, as Sacred Scriptures that revealed his mystery”.

And he continues: “I realized increasingly that Judaism (which in the strict sense began with the conclusion of the process of the scriptural canon's formation hence in the first century after Christ) and the Christian faith, as described in the New Testament, are two ways of making  the Sacred Scriptures of Israel one's own, that ultimately depend on the position taken with regard to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture, which today we call the Old Testament, in itself is open to both paths.

“In any case, it was only after the Second World War”, Ratzinger acknowledges, “that we began to understand properly that the Jewish interpretation also has a specific theological mission of its own in the time “after Christ”.

This historical and theological conviction was subsequently deepened in the course of decades and led Cardinal Ratzinger to write the introduction with which, in 2001, he chose to preface the innovative text of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Jewish People and its Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. It also factored into the writing, begun in 2003, of the continuation of Jesus of Nazareth , now nearing completion, in which the references to Judaism are continuous and fundamental.

In the brief introduction to the document, the German Cardinal (then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the above-mentioned Commission), having taken up the affirmation that “without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an unintelligible book, a plant deprived of its roots and destined to dry up and wither” (n. 84), stressed that “the Christian hermeneutic of the Old Testament, which without any doubt is profoundly different from that of Judaism, “corresponds nevertheless to a potentiality of meaning that is really present in the texts” (n. 64).

“This is a conclusion, which seems to me of great importance for the pursuit of dialogue, but above all, for grounding the Christian faith”, Ratzinger added.

Called to succeed John Paul ii, exactly one month after his election Benedict xvi declared that he considered it providential that a Polish Pope should be succeeded by a German Bishop, as if to conclude, symbolically, the horrors of the Second World War.

In continuity with the quest for reconciliation and friendship with the “brothers of the  Jewish people to whom we are bound”, he said in the Mass inaugurating his Pontificate, “by a great common spiritual heritage that is rooted in the irrevocable promises of God”.

A journey that began in Galilee and in Judea at the time of Roman domination has passed through almost 20 centuries.

Progress became easier in the second half of the 20th century, thanks to many men and women of good will, among whom the Successors of the Fisherman of Galilee certainly stand out. And it is against this background that Pope Ratzinger's visit to the Jewish community of Rome should be interpreted.

It comes after many meetings with representatives of the world of Judaism, and, in particular, after his Visits to the Synagogues in Cologne and in New York, and after the journey to Israel during the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Thus it is an historic but also a normal visit.

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