April 21, 2005, ROME - In another sign that he intends to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI invited the chief rabbi of Rome to his installation, a spokesman for Rome's Jewish community said Thursday.
The spokesman, Riccardo Pacifici, said Rabbi Riccardo di Segni received the letter Thursday. "The message that arrived brought with it surprise, pleasure and hope for the future," he said.
The Vatican could not immediately be reached for comment. But the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Benedict's letter as saying:
"In announcing to you my election and my solemn inauguration of my Pontificate ... I confide in the help of the Almighty to continue the dialogue and strengthen the collaboration with the sons and daughters of the Jewish people."
The pope's installation is scheduled for Sunday, the first day of Passover, and the rabbi will not attend the ceremony, "obviously not as an act of impoliteness, but to fulfill Jewish practices," Pacifici said.
"Let's say that this is a good beginning," he said.
Jews widely admired Pope John Paul II for his efforts to promote Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, and he won many Israeli hearts during a trip to the Holy Land in 2000 by apologizing for Roman Catholic wrongdoing over the centuries. He also was praised for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and aiding Polish Jews during the Nazi era.
In his testament, John Paul mentioned only two living people: his longtime private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the now retired chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who had welcomed John Paul to the city's synagogue in 1986 in a historic gesture of reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Jews.
As a young man, the new pope served in the Hitler Youth - compulsory at the time - and was drafted into a German anti-aircraft unit at the end of World War II but later deserted. Although Benedict has been a leading voice in the church in battling anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish-Catholic relations, his past in Germany worries some Israelis.
Benedict's message to the rabbi came in response to di Segni's earlier telegram congratulating the new pope on his election, Pacifici said.
I think that's a wonderful gesture on the pope's part," said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who has served on Vatican-Jewish committees, is director of the New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Undertanding and has read several of the pope's books.
"When it comes to Jews I think he's very clear ... on the great importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue," Bemporad said.