The pope went to the synagogue of Rome in the afternoon of Sunday, January 17th. In his speech before the leaders of the Italian Jewish community, he clearly aligned himself with his predecessor, John Paul II, recalling the latter’s visit to the Roman synagogue on April 13, 1986, and quoting in full his message of repentance at the Wall of Lamentations during the pilgrimage that he made to the Holy Land in March 2000:
“We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.” Benedict XVI placed all these overtures towards Judaism in the framework of the interreligious dialogue promoted by the conciliar document Nostra Aetate (1965). He spoke of the common duty “to strive to keep open the space for dialogue, for reciprocal respect, for growth in friendship…”
This was Benedict XVI’s third visit to a synagogue, after Cologne in August 2005 and New York in April 2008, which prompted Jean-Marie Guenois to write in Le Figaro of January 18: “No other pope has visited as many synagogues.” Moreover, in May 2009, during his trip to the Holy Land, the pope went to Jerusalem, in the footsteps of John Paul II, to visit the Yad Vashem Shoah Memorial and the Wall of Lamentations. On this occasion, he also visited the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem.
In response to questions posed by the Roman agency I.Media, the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, the principal organizer of this visit, declared: “I expect a serious commitment from the pope to make progress in respect by trying to appreciate the positions and feelings of others. I expect him to commit himself to the continuation of dialogue.” He added:
"If Ratzinger the theologian has a complicated theology, there is room in this theology for a profound respect for the Jewish roots of Christianity. This is not common, especially in the modern thought of the Churches in general. On this point, Ratzinger is very open to discussion with Jewish tradition, both ancient and recent. His theology regarding the Jews unfortunately includes a few questionable points such as the questions of salvation, truth, conversion or fulfillment. These are problems that cannot fill us with enthusiasm."
In fact, during the speech at the synagogue, Benedict XVI did not touch upon any of these “questionable points,” wishing, as he had declared during Sunday’s Angelus, only to show “the common commitment to recognize what unites” the two communities: “faith in the one God, first of all, but also the safeguard of life and of the family, and the aspiration to social justice and peace.”
On January 13, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, announced during a press conference what appeared in the papal allocution of the 17th, namely, the importance in the pope’s eyes of giving to a secularized world the witness of a “faith shared” by the Jews and Christians “in one God [and] in the Decalogue.” See our commentary below.
As Frederic Mounier observed in La Croix of January 18:
Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Jewish community of Rome, was the only one to bring up the name of Pius XII, whom Benedict XVI did not name, and to ask for the opening of the archives [of the Vatican on the Second World War—Ed.]: “The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah, still hurts because something should have been said. Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, toward those brothers of ours transported Auschwitz.” Shortly before, he had praised the nuns who saved so many Jews.
In reply, the pope remarked in passing that “the Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way” to save Jews during the war.
This visit had a highly symbolic political significance, which the Jewish authorities who organized it did not fail to mention. Therefore it is not surprising that diplomacy alone could enter the synagogue, leaving theology at the door.
In his speech at the synagogue, Benedict XVI emphasized what, according to him, unites Judaism and Catholicism, and, following John Paul II, invited Catholics to [a commitment] to “genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant” and asserted that “Christians and Jews share to a great extent a common spiritual patrimony, they pray to the same Lord, they have the same roots, and yet they often remain unknown to each other.”
To be sure, this speech is in perfect continuity with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, but scarcely with the teaching of the first pope. In effect, standing before the people of Israel, St. Peter expressed himself in these terms:
You are the heirs of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, when he said to Abraham, Every race on earth shall receive a blessing through thy posterity. It is to you first of all that God has sent his Son, whom he raised up from the dead to bring you a blessing, to turn away every one of you from his sins (Acts, 3:25-26 [Knox version]).
But, he added, addressing the princes of the people and the elders:
This is ‘the stone which was rejected by you the builders, which is become the head of the corner.’ Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:11-12).
And St. Paul added:
Be it known therefore to you, men, brethren, that through him forgiveness of sins is preached to you: and from all the things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses. In him every one that believeth is justified (Acts 13:38-39).
Like Sts. Peter and Paul, one cannot but desire that the salvation brought by Jesus Christ to all men might be announced to the Jews. But it is inconceivable that this salvation be announced to them by a preaching fundamentally different from that of the Apostles who are the two pillars of the Catholic Church.
For further study, see “Christians, Muslims, Jews: Do We All Have the Same God?” by Fr. Francois Knittel, Christendom, No. 14, Nov.–Dec. 2007, in the archives online at DICI.org/en.