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VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Pope Benedict XVI visits Rome’s main synagogue next Sunday (Jan. 17) to mark Italy’s 21st annual Day of Jewish-Christian Reflection, the setting alone will reflect a momentous event in Jewish-Catholic relations.
The Great Synagogue of Rome stands inside the city’s former Jewish ghetto, where for centuries (from 1555 to 1870) Rome’s Jews lived behind locked gates and were treated as pariahs by orders of the Vatican.
In going there now, Benedict follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, whose 1986 visit was the first time a pope had entered a Jewish house of worship since the early centuries of Christianity.
Benedict’s repeat visit represents the “institutionalization” of John Paul’s historic overture, setting a precedent that “will be very hard for any successor to ignore,” said Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Still, Benedict’s visit also comes at a moment of heightened tension between Jews and the Catholic Church. Several recent controversies have raised doubts — which Rosen calls “unjustified” — about Benedict’s commitment to strong relations between the two faiths.
Last month, Benedict signed a decree recognizing the “heroic virtues” of the late Pope Pius XII, an important first step toward possible sainthood. Many Jewish leaders say that Pius, who reigned during World War II, did not say or do enough to stop the Nazi Holocaust. They have urged a halt to the sainthood process until after independent historians have examined material from the Vatican archives; Vatican officials say the records won’t be accessible before 2014.
The president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis had warned the Pius controversy could derail Benedict’s synagogue visit. Rome’s Jewish leaders decided to reaffirm the invite, but said the gesture “must not be interpreted as approval of the controversial historical interpretations of Pius XII’s choice of silence (during the Holocaust).”
This is not the first time the Holocaust has become a flashpoint in Benedict’s dealings with Jews.
A year ago this month, Benedict set off one of the biggest crises of his papacy when he lifted the 20-year-old excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist bishop, Richard Williamson, who turned out to be a public Holocaust denier. Benedict subsequently condemned Holocaust denial several times, most forcefully in remarks at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in May.
Yet some Jewish spokesmen voiced disappointment with the Yad Vashem speech, since Benedict — a German who had belonged to the Hitler Youth and served in the German military during World War II — failed to denounce the complicity of German Christians in the Holocaust.
Benedict had earlier drawn criticism for a 2006 speech at the Auschwitz concentration camp, in which he seemed to limit responsibility for the Nazi atrocities to a “ring of criminals” who “used and abused”
the German public, and coerced them “through terror and intimidation.”
“He tends to speak (of the Holocaust) in terms of an ideological attack on religion as such, instead of an attack on the Jewish people, with deep associations with the historical tradition of Christian anti-Semitism,” said the Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.
“People are expecting more.”
Benedict could go far toward assuaging Jewish sensitivities next Sunday, Pawlikowski said, even if he merely quotes John Paul’s more forceful statements on the subject.
Also overshadowing Benedict’s visit is a still-unresolved controversy over the so-called Old Latin Mass, which fell out of use in the late 1960s, but which Benedict revived in 2007.
Many Jewish leaders object to a Good Friday prayer in the traditional Latin liturgy that calls on God to “enlighten (Jews’) hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men,” and expresses hope that “all Israel may be saved.” To show their displeasure, Italy’s rabbis boycotted last year’s Day of Jewish-Christian Reflection.
Catholic-Jewish relations in the U.S. are still recovering from a related dispute, after U.S. Catholic bishops sought to “clarify” the church’s relationship with Jews by asserting that all non-Catholics should be targets of evangelization.
Jewish leaders threatened to end 40 years of dialogue over the question, leading to assurances from the bishops last October that interfaith dialogue will never be used as a means of covert proselytism.
“We have not heard Benedict make a statement to the effect that we respect Jewish integrity and so we renounce proselytizing,” said Rosen, who will attend the Rome event. “It would be very dramatic if he were to say that (at the synagogue). I also think it would very unrealistic to expect him to say it.”
Nevertheless, Rosen predicted that Benedict’s visit will be “very valuable” even if he says nothing new. “This is an instance of Woody Allen’s truism that 90 percent of life is showing up,” he said.
But according to Pawlikowski, if the pope hopes to tamp down persistent concerns about his views of the Holocaust and the evangelization of Jews, he must do more than merely repeat previous expressions of good will.
“This is maybe his last chance to establish himself as a major positive figure in Catholic-Jewish relations,” Pawlikowski said. “If he blows this one, he won’t have too many more opportunities to do anything constructive.”

By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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