Visiting synagogues is not getting easier for Pope Benedict

January 17, 2010
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Pope Benedict at Rome's main synagogue, 17 Jan 2010/Osservatore Romano

Visiting synagogues is not getting any easier for Pope Benedict.

Today’s meeting with Rome’s Jewish community was the third time he has entered a synagogue, which is a kind of a papal record considering that his predecessor Pope John Paul — probably the first pope to do so since Saint Peter two millennia ago — made only one such visit himself.

His first synagogue visit, in Cologne only months after his 2005 election, was heavy with the symbolism of a German pope visiting Jews in Germany.  At one point, the rabbi referred to an elderly woman in the congregation who had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. He did this, though, to say that she could not have never imagined back there in Auschwitz that her son — a leader of the Cologne Jewish community present at the ceremony — would one day welcome the pope to a synagogue in Germany. It was tense, but it seemed to be a good start.

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Pope Benedict receives gift from Rabbi Arthur Schneier in New York, 18 April 2008/Max Rossi

Three years later, he got a warm welcome at New York’s Park East Synagogue. Chief Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, thanked God that both of them had made it through the Second World War and seen the Catholic-Jewish reconciliation begun by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. “Your presence here gives us hope and courage for the road we still have to travel together,” he added. Benedict seemed to be getting over the stumbling block of his German background and finding a way to reach out to Jews.

But instead of getting easier, today’s third visit — to the synagogue at Rome’s old Jewish ghetto — turned out to be the most difficult of all. Over 1,000 Roman Jews were deported to Nazi death camps in 1943; only 16 of them survived. The local Jewish community was divided over the visit, with some urging that it be put off after Benedict honoured his wartime predecessor Pope Pius XII last month by moving him closer to sainthood. Pius’s controversial role during the Holocaust — or non-role, as his critics see it, because he did not speak out — is a roadblock on the path of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. But Benedict seems determined to honour him, and every time he speaks or acts in his favour, the barrier seems to get higher.

Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni insisted on going ahead with the visit but Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, head of the Italian Rabbinical Assembly, boycotted it. Citing Benedict’s support for Pius and his decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denying ultra-traditionalist bishop, Laras said ties between Catholic and Jews had “become increasingly weaker during this pontificate.”

Benedict’s visit began a stop at the ghetto monument to Rome’s deported Jews. At the synagogue along the banks of the Tiber, Di Segni and his colleagues greeted the pope and escorted him into the imposing building. Among those attending were a handful of aging concentration camp survivors wearing blue shawls with prisoner’s stripes.  They got a long round of applause when they were introduced during the ceremony.

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Pope Benedict with Riccardo Pacifici at Rome's main synagogue 17 Jan 2010/Tony Gentile

Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, choked with emotion as he delivered his welcoming address.The man speaking to you is the son of Emanuele Pacifici and grandson of Genoa’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Pacifici, who died in Auschwitz with his wife Wanda. If I am here in this sacred place to speak, it’s because my father and my uncle Raffaele found refuge in the convent of the Sisters of Saint Martha in Florence,” he said, to another round of applause.  “Our debt of gratitude to this religious institution is immense and the relationship continues with the sisters of our generation. The State of Israel has given the convent the Medal of the Righteous among the Nations,” he added, wiping away tears and greeting one of the Sisters of Saint Martha seated in the congregation.

Then Pacifici added some of the toughest words ever publicly delivered by a Jewish leader to a pope: “In Italy and other parts of Europe, many religious people risked their lives to save thousands of Jews from certain death, without asking anything in return. This is why the silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts because something should have been done. Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity towards those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz.”

As many Jewish leaders before him, he urged the pope to open all the Vatican’s wartime archives so historians can judge for themselves how much Pius knew and how much he did about the Holocaust. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who met the pope privately, did so as well. The Vatican, which says it will do so once the files are catalogued, argues that Pius worked hard behind the scenes to help persecuted Jews because he avoided publicly denouncing the Nazis out of concern that it would lead to only harsher oppression.

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Pope Pius XII in an undated file photo/Osservatore Romano

The congregation broke into approving applause several times while  Benedict addressed the meeting. They clapped loudly when he said that “many, including Italian Catholics sustained by their faith and Christian teaching, reaced with courage, often at the risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down, and earning perennial gratitude.”

But then Benedict added the argument that Pius loyalists cite in his defence: “The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.” Nobody raised a hand to applaud that line. After a split second, the pontiff continued reading his speech.

After the ceremony, the Holocaust survivors distributed the text of a letter they gave to Benedict. “We are here but we never left Auschwitz,” it read. “We are here but every night our thoughts go to those who  were left nameless and lifeless at Auschwitz. We have never abandoned our faith in men but men did not come to our help … Our hope is that the silence of those who did not stop absolute evil may be overcome by the cry of those who want that what happened will never happen again, so that our yesterday does not become their tomorrow.”

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