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.
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.