The pope in the synagogue, an encounter that made History

Among the most significant events of Ratzinger’s pontificate, there is the visit he made to the Great Synagogue of Rome in January 2010, marking only the second time that a pope has crossed the Tiber River to enter the primary Jewish place of worship in Rome. His visit was preceded by that which in 1986 had as protagonists Karol Wojtyla and Rabbi Toaff, and for this reason, before entering the Synagogue, in a touching homage, he met with Rabbi Emeritus Toaff. On that day, numerous themes and complexities were on the table, as recalled in two remarkable illustrations donated by the author, the artist Enea Riboldi, to Pagine Ebraiche and later reproduced in the national press.
“The teaching of the Second Vatican Council – said Pope Ratzinger – has represented for Catholics a clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant stage. The Council gave a strong impetus to our irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship, a journey which has been deepened and developed in the last forty years, through important steps and significant gestures”. He then claimed of having wanted, during his mission, “to demonstrate [his] closeness to and [his] affection for the people of the Covenant”. He also argued that the Church had “not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism”.
Regarding the Holocaust, he remarked that “the Shoah represents, as it were, the most extreme point on the path of hatred that begins when man forgets his Creator and places himself at the centre of the universe”. Unfortunately, he continued, “many remained indifferent, but many, including Italian Catholics, sustained by their faith and by Christian teaching, reacted with courage, often at risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down”.
“Christians and Jews – he said – share to a great extent a common spiritual patrimony, they pray to the same Lord, they have the same roots, and yet they often remain unknown to each other. It is our duty, in response to God’s call, to strive to keep open the space for dialogue, for reciprocal respect, for growth in friendship, for a common witness in the face of the challenges of our time, which invite us to cooperate for the good of humanity”. Many steps must be taken in this direction, “aware of the differences that exist between us, but also aware of the fact that when we succeed in uniting our hearts and our hands in response to the Lord’s call, his light comes closer and shines on all the peoples of the world”.
Many observers, also in an issue of Pagine Ebraiche that went to press on the same evening, commented on the visit and the gestures that had most distinguished it. “For the first time – historian Anna Foa pointed out – a pope paid homage to the plaque commemorating the raid on Roman Jews on October 16 and stood up from his chair in the synagogue to greet the survivors of the camps. All this means that we are looking ahead, towards a new respect and closer fraternity”.
That intense visit, wrote the mathematician Giorgio Israel, “was the demonstration that those who wanted the pope’s visit to take place were right”. In his assessment, “the legacy, both in Ratzinger’s words and in those of the Jewish leaders, of a previous meeting is evident: all the interventions, in fact, were less formal than those of 1986 and the points raised were very specific and, above all, already included in a perspective of a dialogue that can only bode well for the future”.
Mordechai Lewy, then ambassador of Israel to the Holy See, remarked that “the ability of Judaism to survive is guaranteed by the foundation of the Jewish state. Catholics offer us their hand. It would be foolish not to grasp it, unless we wish to mortgage our future with a constant animosity with the Catholic world. The first 2000 years do not legitimize repetition. We both deserve better”. Not very likeable as a person, but honest: so was Ratzinger in Sergio Minerbi’s opinion. Speaking with Pagine Ebraiche, the former ambassador said that: “It took counter-balls to write to all the bishops ‘I was wrong’ about the Williamson case. But he did so. Benedict XVI is less versed than his predecessor in symbolic or if you like, spectacular gestures. But this is precisely a reason for hope”.

Above, the illustrations by Enea Riboldi depicting the visit of Pope Ratzinger to the Great Synagogue in Rome. In the first, the Pope crosses the Tiber while balancing a long pole with signs saying Dialogue and Conversion. On the riverside, in front of the monumental Temple, signs read “Remember the Shoah”. “Stop negationists”, and “Enough with the Good Friday prayer”. In the second, the Pope leaves the Synagogue greeted by the people on the riverboard, accompanied by words such as Memory and Respect of diversities.