Welcome, Pope Francis, to the Great Synagogue in Rome; a place which was built as a sign of freedom after centuries of restrictions and humiliations; a place visited by kings, presidents, ministers; offended by the Nazis and stained with blood by Palestinian terrorists; but especially a house of prayer where the Jewish people in Rome have celebrated and still celebrate the most important moments of their private and collective life. Today the Temple is grateful to receive the third visit of the Pope and Bishop of Rome. According to the juridical rabbinic traditions, an act repeated three times becomes chazaqà, a habit. Clearly this is a concrete sign of the new era, after all that happened in the past. The breakthrough produced by the Vatican Council fifty years ago was confirmed by numerous and fundamental acts and declarations, the last one month ago, which opened up and established a new path to mutual knowledge, respect and collaboration.
Pope Francis is welcomed by the Jewish Community of Rome. We receive him in this community of faith with its ancient and sacred vocation which, as promised to Abraham, invokes a blessing on those who bless us. The people here today are the historical memory of this community, the unfortunately very few and last survivors of the horrors of the extermination camps, those wounded by terrorist attacks but also the witnesses and the protagonists of the intense organizational and religious life of this community. A community that resists the seductions of this time and invests its energy on its spiritual and social growth, in line with the ancient teachings. It is a positive and constructive testimony of its values in a society for which it difficult to find its own way. Together with the Roman Jews, there are here many representatives of Jewish people from Italy and from the rest of the world, Italian Rabbis, Israeli and European rabbinic delegations and representatives from the Israeli government and state. And also many people who actively work to strengthen the friendly relations between the two faiths. In fact, this event is not restricted to the Jewish community that is geographically closest to Catholicism. It reaches out to the rest of the world with a benevolent message.
Pope Francis’ visit takes place at the beginning of a special year for Christians, that he announced. The Bible founded the Jubilee that the Jewish people were not able to celebrate in line with the prescribed rules because of particular historical and political conditions; but the original idea of the Torah is still valid, it is a model to reshape society on the basis of dignity, equality and freedom. In any case, the Jewish people keep counting the sabbatical years; when multiplied by seven they represent the foundation of the Jubilee; during the sabbatical year – the last one has just finished – the land of Israel must rest and debts must be redeemed. We will soon celebrate the New Year of the Trees, connected to the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel. Many signs of the essential and religious relationship that we have with our promised land. Understanding this link should not be difficult for those who respect to the Bible, but it is still difficult.
In these days in which the Christians are celebrating this special year devoted to mercy with its ancient references and new meanings, we have realized that, at the beginning of the door opening ceremony, an ancient liturgical formula was recited “open the doors of justice”. A Jew knows that these words are familiar; it is a quotation from Psalms (118:19) pitchù li sha’arè tzèdeq, that we recite in our festive liturgy. It is an interesting link. The event of Christianity devoted to mercy maintains a relationship with its biblical origins; it uses the verses from the Psalms, focusing in particular on the theme of justice which cannot be separated from mercy. It shows that these separate and very different routes of the two religions do share a common heritage considered to be sacred by both of them. This separation is rooted in ancient history. From many perspectives, this can be considered a tragedy, an enigma or a blessing. Of course this division has promoted the growth of great autonomous spiritual worlds, but it has also produced hostility, persecutions and suffering. We are all waiting for the time, we don’t know how far away, in which these divisions will disappear. Each one of us has a different view of how this may happen. However, in the meantime, we must find a way to relate to one another, remaining faithful to our tradition. In peace and with respect.
In the light of all of the above, I believe that there are two main signs to be highlighted today. The first is the sign of continuity. The third Pope who visits our Synagogue proves that the gesture made by the first Pope is still valid and meaningful, that is a break from the past characterized by contempt for Judaism; John Paul II’s intuition was to translate the Council’s difficult doctrinal interpretations in concrete gestures and essential and easily comprehensible messages. This was the aim of his visit to the Synagogue; this, in turn, paved the way to the recognition of the state of Israel. His successor, Pope Benedict, adopted the same approach; now Francis has established a habit. We interpret all this as a sign that the Catholic church does not want to ste back from the path of reconciliation.
Pope Francis’ personal commitment confirms this intention, as indicated by the great attention he has always attached to Judaism, first in his quality as Archbishop in Buenos Aires and now as Pope in Rome. Now he is here with us.
The second sign of this visit is dictated by the urgency of the times. The Near East, Europe and many other parts of the world are besieged by wars and terrorism. Today the sad novelty is that after two centuries of disasters produced by nationalism and ideologies, violence has come back and it is fed and justified by fanatic visions inspired by religion. And again this triggers religious persecutions. In the absence of other references and excuses, this destructive drive finds it support and nourishment in religion. On the contrary, a meeting of peace between different religious communities, as the one that is taking place today here in Rome, is a very strong sign against the invasion and abuse of religious violence.
We do not receive the Pope to talk about theology. Each system is autonomous, faith is not a commodity to be exchanged or to be negotiated on a political level. We welcome the Pope to reiterate that the religious differences, to be maintained and respected, must not justify hatred and violence. Instead, these must be enthused with friendship and collaboration and the experiences, values, traditions and great ideas which characterize our identity must be used to serve our communities.
Together, we must have our voice heard against any attack with a religious nature and for the defense all religions. However, we must be together not only to speak out against the horrors; we must work and cooperate on a daily basis. Our Jewish community invests all its resources to ensure its future and it carries out this commitments with a harmonious relationship with the society to the benefits all its members.
Yesterday, in all the Synagogues of the world, we read the chapters of the book of the Exodus that speak about the showdown between Moses, who asks the Pharaoh to free the Jews from slavery, and the Pharaoh, who opposes this request with all his means. We do not have a Moses guiding us, nor fortunately do we have a Pharaoh to fight. However, the very history of this Synagogue shows that a benevolent King can turn into persecutor. But this biblical story, the foundation of our faith, proves that the strength of the spirit is able to triumph and to crack even the strictest systems and the harshest regimes. We must be aware of our strength and trust our good values.
We have talked about doors opening. To conclude I would like to share with you a quotation, the words of the invocation we recite everyday at the end of the ‘amidà prayer, according to the Italian rite: “let the doors of the Torah, of wisdom, intelligence and knowledge, of nourishment and subsistence, of life, of grace, of love and of mercy and gratitude be open in front of You”. “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer”.