Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Great Synagogue

Today Pope Francis becomes only the third Pope in history to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome - following in the footsteps of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1986 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Mutual reconciliation and unprecedented progress in Catholic-Jewish relations have been among the most particularly positive developments in inter-religious relations over the past 50 years. So let us join the Holy Father in his special prayer intention for this month: that sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce fruits of peace and justice.

According to Rabbi Di Segni, Rome's Chief Rabbi: "It is an important meeting, even if it is the third. Precisely the fact that he is the third Pope to visit the Synagogue means that there is a continuation of the tradition and the community awaits him with gratitude for this gesture of kindness to us. This shows, in a wider scene than the local, the desire of two religious worlds to establish and consolidate peaceful relations in regard to the negative and mortal examples that come from other religious horizons."

The site of the visit is itself not without significance. While the presence of a Jewish community in Rome dates all the way back to the 2nd century BC, the present Great Synagogue, which I had the privilege of visiting in 2012, was only completed a little over a century ago in 1904. After Italy had been united under the Royal House of Savoy, which conquered Rome from the Pope in 1870, the old Ghetto was demolished, and its Jews were granted full citizenship in the new kingdom. Also demolished was the old Ghetto Synagogue (which had actually housed 5 synagogues within one structure), and in its place was built the large and impressive edifice that stands there today. King Victor Emmanuel III attended the Dedication, presumably as an anti-papal gesture. Unfortunately, some three decades later, in 1938, the same King Victor Emmanuel III (probably against his better judgment) signed Italy’s notorious leggi raziali (racial laws) which restricted the civil rights of Italian Jews and excluded them from Italian public life. The leggi raziali were part of Mussolini’s policy (post-Abyssinian War) of aligning Italy more closely with Nazi Germany. And, like the German alliance itself, those laws were never particularly popular in Italy. After the same King fired Mussolini in 1943, the leggi raziali were suppressed. But, of course, for those Jews unfortunately caught in the parts of Italy that fell under German occupation (including Rome itself), their situation soon became much more perilous. The same Synagogue which commemorates the Italian King’s presence at its Dedication also has commemorative markers honoring local Jews who were victims of the Nazi occupation of Rome and of a PLO terrorist attack in 1982.

All that is part of the complex and at times troubled relationship between Christians and Jews over the centuries. But, as today's papal visit suggests, there have also been other, more promising developments, which need to be recognized and celebrated.

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