35 years since Pope St John Paul II’s historic visit to Rome’s Synagogue

Pope St John Paul II's historic visit to Rome’s Synagogue 35 years ago marked a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations.

By Linda Bordoni

The date of 13 April 1986 is etched in history as the day of the first-ever recorded papal visit to a Synagogue. It was a rainy spring afternoon when Pope St. John Paul crossed the River Tiber to pay his respects to the community of Rome’s imposing Victorian Synagogue, believed to be home to the oldest Jewish community in the West.

Thousands of Romans gathered to cheer, and the international press corps was present in force to capture the moment widely seen as a gesture destined to go down in history.

''The heart opens itself,'' Rabbi Elio Toaff declared, and the two leaders embraced and entered the synagogue together to the ovation of the 1,000-strong congregation.

In a service that emphasized the equal dignity of the two faiths, the two men sat on identical gilt and brocade thrones and took turns reading from the Book of Psalms. The Pope even read one in Hebrew.

He quoted extensively from the Declaration Nostra Aetate, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and dedicated to the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, and which rejects a longstanding belief that held Jews responsible for Christ's death.

"Elder brothers"

''The Jewish religion is not 'extrinsic' to us, but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion,” he said, “With Judaism, therefore,” he continued, “we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.''

Condemation of anti-Semitism

''Once again, through myself," St John Paul II said, “the Church, deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews any time and by anyone, I repeat, By anyone."

The Polish Pope went on to recall his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, upholding the memory of “the people whose sons and daughters were destined to total extermination.''

And speaking just meters away from a plaque outside the synagogue dedicated to the memory of 2,091 Roman Jews deported by the Nazis, he said: ″The Jewish community of Rome, too, paid a high price in blood.″

Separate identities

In his concise but complex discourse the Pope also gave voice to yet another perspective of Catholic Jewish relations when he declared that “each of our religions'' wishes ''to be recognized and respected in its own identity,'' beyond ''any ambiguous appropriation.''

In his footsteps

Both Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and Pope Francis in 2016, have followed in his footsteps and visited Rome’s Synagogue, reiterating their respect and their friendship to Jews, or, as Pope St John Paul II described them, “our elder brothers.”

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13 April 2021, 15:00