SPEECH BY UCEI PRESIDENT – FULL TEXT “The Importance of Symbolic Gestures”

gattegnaBy Renzo Gattegna

Dear Pope Francis,
It is with a spirit of profound respect that, on behalf of all the Italian Jewish Communities, I offer you our warmest welcome.
I am aware that you have come to this Temple to meet Italian Jewry, with its thousand-year-old history of faith and culture, suffering and life.

Your visit will further strengthen the process of dialogue, friendship and brotherhood between the Jewish People – the People of the Covenant – and the Catholic Church.
Your visit today follows the preceding visits of Pope John Paul II in 1986 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, each of which marked an increase in the level of our relations.
We have an indelible memory of the images of the historic embrace between Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff thirty years ago, April 13, 1986. I was present, and I saw with my own eyes how the two approached one another, first held each other’s hands and then let themselves go in that gesture, one leaning against each other as if to sustain each other and erase the distance that for centuries had been unbridgeable.

On January 17, 2010 I had the pleasure of participating personally, as representative of Italy’s 21 Jewish Communities, in the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, then as today, together with our Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. It was a significant meeting, with rich contents, during which the Pope reaffirmed our shared common roots as the basis to overcome all forms of misunderstanding and prejudice.

These two encounters have constituted crowning moments and the ideal continuation of a path that has not always been easy, which has its origins in the fundamentally positive shift ushered in with the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, “Nostra Aetate.” This step, taken 50 years ago, radically changed the relationship between the Catholic Church and the whole of Judaism and is unanimously considered a milestone marking the beginning of a constructive dialogue, an evaluation largely shared by statements made during the numerous celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary, held in the past months.

In their diversity, in the mutual respect of different traditions, in the acceptance of equal dignity, the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism has since then been experiencing a period of great progress, which we can certainly define as one of historic significance.

It is thanks to you, Pope Francis, that in recent years this new era has received further impetus. Personally, having had the honour of meeting you several times in these years, I have come to realize how strong and profound your ties are with the Jewish world.
In November, 2013, your first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii gaudium”, was published. In the document, and on many further occasions, you conveyed affirmations that past generations of Jews had long hoped to hear spoken, notably, those whose very importance has not yet been recognized by all. I wish to mention a few relevant passages: “nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God”; “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable”; “The Church looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity.”

And finally, the most recent declaration by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews in December, 2015, which affirms: “that the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable.”

This doubtlessly positive landscape must not induce anyone to interrupt the path undertaken so far, aimed at further progress. In particular, I feel it is necessary to develop a common strategy that will permit wider diffusion, to the entire population, of the great work that has been accomplished and of the consolidation of sentiments of mutual respect, friendship and brotherhood which until today has remained largely confined to the religious and cultural elites, while prejudice and statements based on contempt continue to circulate, offending and hurting us. We cherish the hope that the young generations may reap the fruits of the seeds that have been sown, and that they may reaffirm the values of dialogue and of life.
In this respect we have great faith in your capacity to speak, to dialogue, and to succeed in making yourself heard by the Community of the faithful, in addition to the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

So often in the past, anti-Semitism was nourished by false symbols, created to spread false stereotypes and distorted depictions, above all in sections of the population that had less access to education. To take just a couple of examples: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the cult of Simon of Trent. What had been created in remote epochs marked by the dawn of communication technology, could become – and sadly, owing to powerful digital communication tools, might already have turned into – a new, increasingly dangerous, weapon.

The Catholic Church has always been attentive and aware of the importance of symbols and words, and you, dear Pope Francis, have given proof of a great capacity to virtuously disseminate important and complex messages with apparent simplicity, precisely through the power of example and symbolic gestures.

If we look at the international context, which we are surrounded and conditioned by, it appears quite clear that in this difficult moment Christians and Jews are bound by the same destiny, as you have recalled during your trip to Israel and in your meetings with both President Shimon Peres, and President Reuven Rivlin. Christians and Jews are forced to defend themselves against fierce enemies, who are violent and intolerant, who are using the name of God to spread terror and are committing the most atrocious crimes against humanity.
Salvation for all can come only through the creation of a strong coalition, based on shared ethical principles and values such as the respect for life and the quest for peace, capable of winning this challenge by walking together, side by side, with respect for diversity, but at the same time conscious of the many values, principles and hopes that unite us.