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When Pope John Paul II Came to the Great Synagogue of Rome

The Polish prelate who fundamentally improved the long bitter relations between Jews and the Catholic Church

Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni
May 19, 2021
David Rubinger/Corbis via Getty Images
Pope John Paul II seated with Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Italy, in the Great Synagogue of Rome, April 13, 1986David Rubinger/Corbis via Getty Images
David Rubinger/Corbis via Getty Images
Pope John Paul II seated with Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Italy, in the Great Synagogue of Rome, April 13, 1986David Rubinger/Corbis via Getty Images

These days in Rome, we are remembering the 35th anniversary of the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Great Synagogue of Rome, on April 13, 1986. At the end of his historic speech during that visit, the pope quoted the first verses from Psalms 118, first in Hebrew, then in Italian:

O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

A Hebrew-speaking pope inside a Roman synagogue was certainly impressive. However, religious Jews who are familiar with those verses, which are commonly sung in the prayer of Hallel, noted that the quotation of verses from 1 to 4 had omitted verse 3, which says:

Let the House of Aharon say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Why did the pope make this particular omission? Was it made for reasons of brevity, or something else? There have been some critical studies on the evolution of the text of the speech, which passed through several drafts until arriving at the final text. This passage, with its omission, was never changed.

Some doubt remains about a clear theological explanation: According to the Christian faith, since the writing of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews, the priesthood of the descendants of Aharon was ended, replaced by the original priesthood of Melchizedek, which was renewed by Jesus. Omitting the reference to the House of Aharon in the quotation from the Psalms could have been a message of supersessionism, hidden by allusion.

The more famous sentence that the pope uttered in that speech was this one:

You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.

The line contained a similar message: Elder brothers in the Bible, starting from Cain to Esau and forward, are the bad guys, and those who lose their birthright. Again, a whiff of replacement theology. The same critical studies on the speech, and some oral narratives on its genesis, say that the original version said “predecessors” and was changed to “elder brothers” with the purpose of avoiding the impression of the Jews as old men who passed away.

Such subtle analyses of the text confirm or at least create the impression of a systematic ambiguity in the approach of the Catholic Church, and of Pope John Paul II, to the Jews. From one side, there was unprecedented public openness and friendship. From the other side, there was theological resistance. Understanding the two-sided nature of this relationship is a fundamental key to understanding the complicated relationship of the 20th century’s most significant pope to the Jews.

Catholic theology is a delicate matter. An institution with 19 centuries of history takes time to elaborate its thought, and it cannot change abruptly without the risk of creating fractures. After the tragedy of World War II, the Church understood that it was no longer morally tolerable to teach contempt toward the Jews, and instead started a difficult process, or reelaboration. The declaration Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965, was a turning point, let’s say the official beginning of this turn. But it was just the beginning. A lot of questions remained, and still now some of those questions remain open.

It is in this context that the long pontificate of John Paul II is so important for Jews to study and understand. When he was elected pope in 1978, the wider public knew little about him, and the Jews of Italy knew him even less. Sincerely speaking, his Polish origin was a matter of concern. The traditional attitudes toward Jews of both Catholics and of the Catholic Church in that land were not immediately encouraging.

Very soon, a different picture emerged. There started to circulate a story about a young priest in Poland who at the end of WWII was asked by a family who hid a Jewish boy, an orphan of the persecutions, what to do with him: either to baptize and keep him with them, or else to give him back to his people. The priest suggested that the boy should be released to Jewish organizations. This priest was Karol Wojtyla, the soon-to-be Pope John Paul II.

Wojtyla’s decision was in clear contradiction of the official instructions given by the Church of Rome, inspired by Pope Pius XII himself, notwithstanding the requests of the Jews and the personal intercession of the chief rabbi of Israel.

Wojtyla (born in 1920), grew up in close contact with Jews. The house where his family lived was rented to them by a Jew. He numbered several Jews among his close friends. With his own eyes, he witnessed not only the tragedy of Poland during the war, but specifically the systematic destruction of the Jewish people around him.

When Wojtyla arrived in Rome, where Jews dressed just like other Italians, without any distinction, he asked curiously why they didn’t dress as Jews, as many of them used to do in Poland. The image of the Jews he had carried with him since his childhood was very clear, specific, and quite sympathetic.

After the Nostra Aetate declaration, groups of experts on both sides, Christian and Jewish, worked together to elaborate documents, instructions, and changes of teaching. A new climate of friendship slowly developed, though it was often limited to specialized groups. But the Vatican has a double soul, one religious and the other political. So, while in terms of religious relations a new era of defrosting started, the issue of the State of Israel remained a controversial point: No diplomatic relations were permitted and the Church took a rather harsh and critical approach. This coldness, which prevailed under the pontificate of Paul VI, began to change under the new pope who came from Poland. However, it progressed slowly, though animated by an underlying sympathetic approach by the pope himself.

To summarize some of the problems that occurred between the Catholic Church and the Jews during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II:

The memory of the Shoah: Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Auschwitz, in 1979. Several attempts to Christianize the Shoah during his pontificate were criticized by the Jews, such as the comparison of Auschwitz to the Golgota (the place of crucifixion); the beatification of Edith Stein, a converted Jewish philosopher who became a nun and was gassed in Auschwitz; the establishment of a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz itself; and the document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” in which the historical responsibilities of the Church in promoting anti-Judaism were minimized and distinguished from those of the Nazis, who were portrayed as “Pagans.”

Theology: A great responsibility for the doctrinal definition of the Church was given to Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. His openness to some issues contrasted with his rigidity in others, and sometimes this led to open discussions or even protests, as in the Jubilar year of 2000, when Jews refused to participate in a special event after a document was issued apparently denying salvation to those not believing in Jesus. The acrobatics in the pope’s speech at the Roman Synagogue were one of the signs of the difficulties that those who wished to change Catholic theology on these points encountered.

The State of Israel was recognized by the Vatican in 1993. Pope John Paul visited Israel in March 2000. Compared with the cold and even rude approach of Paul VI to the State of Israel and its leadership in his short visit in 1964, the positive difference and progress was evident to all. It helped that the Israeli leadership of that time still included many Polish-born Jews, so the visit was also a meeting of old fellow citizens who remembered prewar Poland.

Yet the pope’s visit to the Roman Synagogue also marked a turning point in his pontificate and in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. After that, two more popes visited this place, so in retrospect, the pope’s visit now looks like a normal event. That was not so 35 years ago; back then, the crossing of the Tiber by the pope himself broke many barriers.

With his own eyes, he witnessed not only the tragedy of Poland during the war, but specifically the systematic destruction of the Jewish people around him.

Why was this visit so important? Well, from the time of Peter, the first pope, himself a Jew, no pope had ever visited a place of Jewish worship in Rome, and probably anywhere else. The pope himself and his entourage, pressed by criticism for the Vatican’s attitude toward Israel and several other difficulties in relations with the Jews, understood that it was necessary to give an important signal. Karol Wojtyla understood very well the role of mass communication and of public gestures. He understood also that the official theological documents are important preliminaries, but the large public needs messages that are more easily understandable.

The picture of the pope and the rabbi, both dressed in white, hugging and smiling, touched the hearts of millions of people. The same logic of a public gesture was followed years after during the visit in Israel, when the pope crossed the square in front of the Kotel alone and put a letter inside the stones, following the folkloristic Jewish custom. Folklore or not, it didn’t matter. The gesture is what mattered.

In his last will, the pope quoted personally only two people: his secretary, now Cardinal Stanisław Jan Dziwisz, and the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who greeted him at the Roman Synagogue and with whom he established a personal friendship.

There is no doubt that the contribution of Pope John Paul II to the improvement of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews was significant and fundamental. The fact that some problems remain was inevitable, considering the weight of the Church’s long history and the complex systems of resistance that existed, and still exist, within the institutional and theological fields—not only within the Catholic Church itself but also among Jews. But that’s a story for another day.

Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni is the Chief Rabbi of Rome. He completed his rabbinical studies in 1973 and was elected Chief Rabbi of Rome in 2001. He is also a specialist in diagnostic radiology.

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