Pope Francis’ visit to the Great Synagogue


Pope Francis made history once again with his visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on Jan. 17. He slowly walked into the synagogue and personally greeted as many of the congregants as possible before speaking to a number of Holocaust survivors who were sitting in the front row.

In the sanctuary he sat next to Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, joined by dignitaries from the synagogue along with the present president of the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Kurt Koch, and the past president, Cardinal Walter Kasper.

Rabbi Di Segni welcomed the pope, saying, “A meeting of peace between different religious communities, as the one that is taking place today here in Rome, is a very strong sign against the invasion and abuse of religious violence.”

Of course, this is not the first visit of a pope to the Great Synagogue of Rome. Pope Francis followed his predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, visiting the synagogue as a means of signaling an era of peaceful and respectful outreach from the church toward Jews throughout the world.

For Pope Francis who has a long history of warm relations with the Jewish community throughout his ministry in Argentina, this visit was just another opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”

This visit came on the heels of the recent release of a new Vatican statement on Catholic-Jewish relations, titled, “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” a quote from one of the most important New Testament texts for Jewish-Catholic relations, Romans 11:29. The authors of the document, Cardinal Koch, Bishop Brian Farrell and Father Norbert Hofmann, remind Christians that “the first Christians were Jews; as a matter of course they gathered as part of the community in the synagogue, they observed the dietary laws, the Sabbath and the requirement of circumcision, while at the same time confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah sent by God for the salvation of Israel and the entire human race.”

Pope Francis echoed this quote at the synagogue, speaking of the “inseparable bond” in the covenants between Jews and Christians.

“The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” reminds us “the common patrimony of the Old Testament not only formed the fundamental basis of a spiritual kinship between Jews and Christians but also brought with it a basic tension in the relationship of the two faith communities. This is demonstrated by the fact that Christians read the Old Testament in the light of the New, in the conviction expressed by Augustine in the indelible formula: ‘In the Old Testament the New is concealed and in the New the Old is revealed.’”

Speaking of the significance of the pope’s visit to the Roman synagogue, Rabbi Di Segni said, “Our meeting aims to convey a very topical, important and urgent message — that belonging to a faith, a religion, should not be a cause of hostility, hatred and violence, but that it is possible to build a peaceful coexistence, based on respect and cooperation.”

With the backdrop of so much Islamic extremism throughout the world, Pope Francis during his address at the synagogue added, “Violence of man against man is in contradiction to every religion that merits the name, in particular the three monotheistic religions,” referring to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. “Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother regardless of his origins or religious belief.”

Pope Francis recalled that during the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were “victims of the most inhuman barbarism, perpetrated in the name of an ideology that wanted to replace God with man. The Shoah teaches us that we must have maximum vigilance, to be able to intervene quickly in defense of human dignity and peace.”

The pope said several times that Jews were the “elder brothers” of Christians, repeating the words first uttered by Pope John Paul during his historic visit to the synagogue 30 years ago. But he added that Christians also had “elder sisters” in the Jewish faith — to the applause of many of the women there present!

Making reference to Nostra Aetate, he said the declaration amounted to a “‘yes’ to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity and a ‘no’ to every form of anti-Semitism and a condemnation of every insult, discrimination and persecution that is derived from it.”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.