Pope Benedict's Day of Atonement

By Gruber, Ruth Ellen | The New Leader (Online), January/February 2010 | Go to article overview
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Pope Benedict's Day of Atonement


Gruber, Ruth Ellen, The New Leader (Online)


Rome

Few CROSSTOWN journeys have been loaded with more symbolism than the two-mile route Pope Benedict XVI took on January 17 from the Vatican to the Tempio Maggiore, Rome's main synagogue on the opposite side of the Tiber River.

Today Vatican City is a tiny enclave; outside its walls the pontiff wields only religious authority. But popes once presided over great swaths of territory. And, as Brown University scholar David I. Kertzer put it in The Popes Against the Jews (2001):

"Where the popes acted as temporal rulers . . . discrimination against Jews was public policy. Indeed, the Jews were consigned to ghettos, made to wear Jew badges on their clothes so all would know of their reviled status, and forbidden to have normal social interaction with their Christian neighbors. The popes and the Vatican worked hard to keep Jews in their subservient place - barring them from owning property, from practicing professions, from attending university, from traveling freely - and they did all this according to canon law and the centuries-old belief that in doing so they were upholding the most basic tenets of Christianity."

The short ride in his black limousine brought the pontiff to the site still known as "the Ghetto." Roman Jews were forced to live there until 1 870, when the last remnant of the Papal States was liberated by the Italian Risorgimento. Along the way Benedict passed through streets where ancientruins, centuries-old palazzi, soaring churches, and modern-day traffic and commerce form the variegated fabric of the ever evolving Eternal City.

He also passed places from which more than 1 ,000 Roman Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz in October 1943, "under the windows of the pope," in the words of Rome's present Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, referring to wartime Pope Pius XII. And the limousine drove up to where Palestinian terrorists killed a two-year-old boy and wounded dozens of others in a 1 982 attack on the synagogue.

Benedict was just the second pope to make this trip. He followed his immediate predecessor, the Polish-born John Paul II, whose visit to the Tempio Maggiore in April 1986 marked the first time a pope had publicly set foot in any synagogue.

That visit came 2 1 years after the Second Vatican Council's landmark Nostra Aetate refuted the teaching that the Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus and opened the way to formal Jewish-Catholic dialogue. John Paul's embrace of Rome's then Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff was one of the signal images of his pontificate. Similarly, his declaration that the Jews are "our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way it can be said you are our elder brothers," exemplified the outreach to the Jewish world that was a hallmark of his papacy.

A friend of mine, a Vatican correspondent who covered the event, told me recently that nearly 24 years later she still feels the power ofthat moment. "It was John Paul's shortest trip, a 10-minute drive across the Tiber, but his most important, as far as I was concerned," she told me. "I still get shivers thinking back to the emotion there that day, especially when he got to the line about 'our dearly beloved brothers.'"

No one expected the same historic heights to be hit when Benedict entered the Tempio Maggiore, a tall, slightly oriental-looking building with a distinctive squared-off dome. For contacts and dialogue between Catholics and the Jewish world have flourished - albeit at times fitfully - since 1986. John Paul made it routine to meet with Jewish groups either at the Vatican or on his many voyages around the world. I vividly remember my own brief face time with him, as part of an American Jewish delegation in the mid- 1 990s. It was nearly a decade before his death, but he already was showing the signs of Parkinson's disease; he walked slowly and heavily into the Vatican hall to greet us. One by one, we were ushered up to shake his hand - an occasion immortalized by an official Vatican photographer, as was every papal encounter.

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