Historic shul visit by Pope

By Ruth Ellen Gruber in Rome, January 21, 2010
The Pope and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, on Sunday

The Pope and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, on Sunday

During his much-anticipated visit to Rome’s main synagogue on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI and Italian Jewish leaders reaffirmed a commitment to dialogue and co-operation.

But echoes of strained relations remained as the German-born pontiff and the president of Rome’s Jewish community sparred over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII.

Critics accuse Pope Pius of having turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Shoah. The current Pope’s decision last month to move Pope Pius closer to sainthood angered many Jews and prompted the president of Italy’s Rabbinical Assembly to boycott the synagogue visit in protest.

Pope Benedict, 82, did not mention Pope Pius by name but implicitly defended him, repeating the stance that the Vatican had “provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way” to Jews during the Second World War.

Minutes earlier, Rome Jewish Community President Riccardo Pacifici repeated calls for the Vatican to open its secret archives to resolve the issue.

The Church ‘provided assistance’ to Jews during the war, he said

Mr Pacfici, however, first paid tribute to individual Catholics and Catholic institutions that had helped Jews — and choked back tears describing how his own father and uncle had been saved in a Catholic convent.

“Because of this, the silence of Pius XII in the face of the Shoah still hurts like a missed opportunity,” he said. “Maybe he could not have stopped the death trains, but he could have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, for our brothers who were transported to the ovens of Auschwitz.”

But these blunt words were an isolated moment.

Pope Benedict received a warm welcome and standing ovation as he reaffirmed commitment to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue launched by the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965 and fostered by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul’s visit to the synagogue in 1986 was the first ever visit by a pope to a shul.

Before entering the synagogue, Pope Benedict paid tribute at plaques honouring Roman Jews deported to Auschwitz and a toddler killed in a 1982 Palestinian terror attack on the shul.

“Despite a dramatic history, the unresolved problems, and the misunderstandings, it is our shared visions and common goals that should be given pride of place,” Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told packed sanctuary from in front of the ornate Ark.

“The image of respect and friendship that emanates from this encounter must be an example for all those who are watching,” he said.

Last updated: 3:57pm, January 21 2010