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EDITORIAL
from issue no. 01 - 2010

A new page in the relationship between Jews and Christians


It is not the first time that Benedict XVI has been a guest in a synagogue, but one cannot escape the fact that what happened on 17 January, in that small corner on the bank of the Tiber which houses a Jewish community bearer of a profound and considerable history is not simply a Roman happening


Giulio Andreotti


Benedict XVI and Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni in the Rome Synagogue on 17 January 2010 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI and Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni in the Rome Synagogue on 17 January 2010 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome represents a new page opening in the relationship between Jews and Christians. It would be a serious mistake to make a parade of it, but it also shouldn’t be underestimated for fear of going off the tracks.
I remember in April 1986 my heart filled with joy when John Paul II entered the Great Synagogue of Rome welcomed by Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, because it was the first time a pope entered a synagogue. But the innovation introduced in the dialogue between Christians and Jews, despite being a most important event, then appeared a moment to itself.
Pope Ratzinger’s visit, instead, represents a step in a direction that is developing, albeit rightly in silence, that will certainly have new turns.
It is not the first time that Benedict XVI has been a guest in a synagogue, but one cannot escape the fact that what happened on 17 January, in that small corner on the bank of the Tiber which houses a Jewish community bearer of a profound and considerable history is not simply a Roman happening. Indeed, precisely because it took place in Rome it is a step fraught with meaning and repercussions on the path of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. And we can not disregard that some historical passages occur because the situation is ripe for turning the page and looking ahead.
Rightly, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, stressed the importance of Vatican II, which was a courageous shift, but which, let me add, had been ripening for some time, even if people were afraid to face it. You may also remember that historically it was with John XXIII, that it was decided to remove from the Good Friday liturgy the prayer pro perfidis Iudaeis that resonated with harshness, but it was no accident that for many years by then a group of avant-garde priests (including Angelo Roncalli, later John XXIII, and Don Giulio Belvederi, some of whom were later treated badly and wrongly branded as modernists) had already deleted this prayer on their own initiative. Because, Monsignor Belvederi explained to me, even though in that context, the adjective “perfidious” did not have its current negative meaning, the liturgy is no ground for literary subtleties.
Certainly as a Roman Catholic raised in his youth with the prohibition against entering non-Catholic places of worship, even for a funeral, I can’t help appreciating the distance come so far. Especially because it has not been a shift reserved to professionals, but a u-turn in the lived life of the Church.
We Catholics have gone beyond all whim of discrimination against Jews. Discrimination that was historically represented not only by the odious racial laws of 1938 (although even then many of us young people perceived the expulsion from school of our Jewish schoolmates as deeply unjust), but also by the pointing to the diversity of the Jewish people with an undercurrent of hostility and mistrust.
I believe that today, despite obvious and irreconcilable differences persisting on the theological level, the time may be ripe on the practical and social plane to develop in the direction of what I would call communion with the Jews and which is a logical consequence of the distance covered so far. Earlier it would perhaps have been an oddity even to think of it, but today we can responsibly enjoy the fruits of what has been achieved.
I hope therefore that we can ever more leave behind the cultural anxiety that has sometimes burdened relations between Christians and Jews, and in this perspective the beatification of Pius XII is not really an obstacle. It is not my intention to go into the specifics but, except for some positions on both sides that I would call factious, dialogue and mutual understanding can deepen also without loss of mutual respect and consistency with historical analysis. This is important also for young people, so that they look at these problems with new eyes, not weighed down by burdens from the past and which are more the result of politics than theology.
John Paul II with Rabbi Elio Toaff during the visit to the Rome Synagogue on 13 April 1986 [© Romano Siciliani]

John Paul II with Rabbi Elio Toaff during the visit to the Rome Synagogue on 13 April 1986 [© Romano Siciliani]

I also hope that everything that is being done around the figure of Pius XII is being done in good faith. In the sense that there must be no winners or losers in the matter. It is a question of allowing the Church to carry out its task as broadly as possible and of not involving it in controversies, which when well looked at, belong not so much to the other world but are much more of this one. And that, as controversies are maybe not so brilliant.
The relationship between Christians and Jews exists historically with grounds of convergence and divergence over time. To wipe away the points of divergence as if with a wet sponge is illusory, looking ahead without being negatively influenced by historical events (which nobody can deny) is, I think, the right line. With reflection, prudence, and, as mentioned, mutual respect.
The political situation in the Middle East, with the long-standing Arab-Israeli crisis, is also a factor which influences the dialogue between Jews and Catholics, making it difficult if not sometimes impossible. But even if some stances relating to the spiritual sphere cannot be changed, we still can’t consider the relationship with the Jews and that of the Jewish community toward us just as a relationship between different diplomacies.
These are difficult matters in which there is a passion that sometimes prevents us from seeing the real issue. I myself have to struggle to avoid this passion. Italy’s foreign policy, for example, has often been decried as too pro-Arab by Jews, with a schematism and rigidity that prevents objectivity and an understanding of the issues. So, on the other hand, statements made during Prime Minister Berlusconi’s visit to Israel were enough for incidents to occur outside the Italian embassy in Iran. I think we should all calm down, because luckily racism is gone, but it has left behind a certain way of posing the problems that is somewhat prejudicial.
We know that there are things which are yet to be understood and resolved, but they must not be stumbling blocks in our path. We must put them behind us with courage, in the interest of all.


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