The following is a translation of an article published in the January issue of the Italian Jewish journal “Pagine ebraiche. Il giornale dell’ebraismo italiano”.
At a time when the media is obsessed with “firsts” (which often are not really firsts at all), what interest and meaning might they derive from Pope Francis’ visit to the Jewish community of Rome? The answer is not difficult: it lies in the fact that it has become customary for a Pontiff, the visible head of the Catholic Church, to meet with the global Jewish community, which has grown in recent years. This meeting is no less significant than those of his predecessors, but on the contrary, it is even more relevant due to the irreversible growth of mutual understanding (yet still inadequate, to tell the truth) and of friendship.
The date chosen for the visit, like that of Benedict xvi, is the day when Italy celebrates Jewish-Catholic dialogue, and it also — not by accident — comes just before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In the same vein, the Holy See’s commission for relations with Jews is part of the institution which favours unity among the separate Christian confessions. This is an expression of an ancient fact, of which we are becoming ever more aware, that the first painful separation occurred precisely between the Synagogue and the Church, something which
This separation resulted in a complicated history, full of misunderstandings, animosity, contempt, violence, even persecution. And yet it has also grown into one of closeness and fruitful relations which, myriad events, dialectics and the strongest of tensions, has never led Jews and Christians to fully sever their unbreakable bond, the significance of which will only be revealed in the end times. It was Paul who, less than 30 years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Teacher of Nazareth, explained this mystery in his letter to the Christian community of Rome, which was of Judaic origin.
In modern times as in the past new persecutions, assimilation into various European countries, anti-Jewish sentiment and various forms of anti-Semitism intertwined and developed into what would become the radical evil of the Holocaust, the extermination of six million Jews on the old continent. That tragedy, almost indescribable in its horror, has led to a new closeness and a desire for understanding between Christians and Jews. This closeness can be attributed to the insights of John xxiii and above all the determination of Paul vi, who patiently led the Council to an almost unanimous vote on an openly positive statement about non-Christian religions, Judaism in particular.
The visit of the first Bishop of Rome from the Americas to the ancient community of the Jewish diaspora comes 50 years after the approval of this conciliar text. Due to his age, Bergoglio is also the first pope not to have participated in Vatican ii, but he is a son of the Council that changed the face of the Catholic Church and he comes from Argentina, a country with a firmly rooted Jewish minority has strong roots. As bishop, he has shared a history of familiarity and friendship with various Jewish exponents.
In the decades following Vatican ii, relations of understanding, friendship and collaboration between countless Catholics and Jews have advanced to the point of not only balancing out but actually overpowering the even sometimes tenacious resistance or opposition that can found on both sides. It has proven more difficult, however, to overcome mutual indifference, ignorance and diffidence. In this respect, one many who must be recognized for his work toward bringing the two communities together is Elio Toaff, who served as chief rabbi for more than half a century. John Paul ii remembered the Rabbi in his testament which uniquely included a mystical vision.
Francis visited the Great Synagogue of Rome accompanied by an extremely long history, which recently has been marked by two very important documents: a brief but important declaration by 25 Orthodox rabbis, mostly from Israel and the United States of America, on the significance and the value of Christianity, and a long document written by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews on the irrevocable gifts and the calling of God to the people of the first covenant. These texts constitute a binding mutual commitment and recognition in the explicit affirmation that the vocation of Jews and Christian is one and indivisible. Without exaggerating, we can call it a leap forward of historic proportions.
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