Pope visits Rome synagogue as Pius row rages

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, January 14, 2010

Pope Benedict’s XVI’s visit to Rome’s main synagogue on Sunday is intended to mark a major step forward in Catholic-Jewish relations.

But it is overshadowed by uproars over recent papal decisions that angered Jews.

“The pope apparently has chosen to balance his unquestionable commitment to the Catholic Church’s good relations with world Judaism with his commitment to recuperating the religious right wing of Catholicism,” said Lisa Palmieri Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s liaison to the Vatican.

The January 17 visit will take place on the Italian Catholic church’s annual Day of Dialogue with Judaism.

Last month, Pope Benedict sparked outrage among many Jews when he moved controversial Second World War Pope XII closer to sainthood. Critics have long accused Pope Pius of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Shoah. The Vatican issued a conciliatory statement, saying Pope Benedict’s move was in no way “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” and should not be considered “an obstacle on the path of dialogue”.

Still, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants called on Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni to convey to the pope their “pain and emotion” at his decision on Pope Pius.

“We believe that the pope should be received with a loving heart and open arms,” they told Rabbi Di Segni. “In that spirit, however, fidelity to truth and memory must be vigorously affirmed.”

Several other incidents have strained Jewish-Catholic relations recently.

Last January, Rabbi Di Segni and other Italian rabbis boycotted the Day of Dialogue observance to protest the Vatican’s 2007 re-introduction of an Easter Latin prayer that appeared to call for the conversion of Jews.

A week later, the pope sparked further anger by revoking the 1988 excommunication order on traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who turned out to deny the scope of the Holocaust. Bishop Williamson was one of four bishops rehabilitated as part of the pope’s hope to bring their ultra-conservative movement, the Society of St Pius X, back within the mainstream Catholic fold.

The Vatican ordered Bishop Williamson to recant and the pope went on to make an official visit to Israel in May.

A cartoon in the Italian Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche graphically summed the complex dynamics.

It shows Pope Benedict crossing the Tiber River toward the synagogue on a tightrope, holding a pole to keep his balance. One end bears a flag reading “dialogue”. The other bears one reading “conversion”. Greeting him is a child holding out his hand in welcome — and a crowd of Jews bearing their own contradictory placards: “Stop Holocaust Denial”, “Welcome”, “Remember the Shoah”, “Enough with the Good Friday Prayers”, and “Thanks for the Visit”.

Last updated: 4:36pm, January 14 2010