The Holy Father went to the Grand Synagogue yesterday to greet Rome’s Jewish community. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was the first Pope to visit a Roman synagogue since apostolic times, a symbolic gesture from a master of symbolic gestures. Pope Benedict, had he chosen not to also make such a visit, could have confined John Paul’s gesture to history. By choosing to also go, Benedict has turned a gesture into a tradition. The Vatican took the unprecedented step of listing the day’s date according to both the Gregorian calendar and the Jewish calendar: The visit occurred on 2 Shevat 5770.
Pope Benedict does not have the flair for the dramatic that his predecessor possessed but his words resonate in a way that is uniquely compelling. He re-affirmed the centrality and importance of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the matter of Jewish-Catholic relations: "The teaching of the Second Vatican Council has represented for Catholics a clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant stage." This was an especially important affirmation because of the controversy surrounding the lifting of the formal decree of excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops, including one who habitually denied the Holocaust. Whatever "reform of the reforms" Pope Benedict intends, a return to the anti-Semitism of early times is no longer possible.
He addressed the controversy surrounding the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust in words that were both deeply moving and, then, strangely oblique. "Here in this place, how could we not remember the Roman Jews who were snatched from their homes, before these very walls, and who with tremendous brutality were killed at Auschwitz?" the Pope asked. "Unfortunately, many remained indifferent, but many, including Italian Catholics, sustained by their faith and by Christian teaching, reacted with courage, often at risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down, and earning perennial gratitude. The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way."
Some rabbis chose to boycott the ceremony because of the recent Vatican decision to declare the "heroic virtue" of Pope Pius XII and move him closer to eventual sainthood. I think the rabbis made a mistake. As Benedict said, "The memory of these events compels us to strengthen the bonds that unite us so that our mutual understanding, respect and acceptance may always increase." Such mutual understanding, respect and acceptance requires hard work on all sides, and boycotting is not the way to achieve it. On the other hand, for those who remember the Holocaust as a personal event, not as something read about in the history books, for those people for whom the Holocaust is not history but memory, who can stand in judgment of their reaction? The Vatican should consider waiting a decade or two before advancing Pius XII’s cause, if only out of deferrence to these feelings, feelings sanctified by suffering, feelings appropriately and understandably deep and abiding among our Jewish brothers and sisters.
I have not made a thorough study of Pius XII and the Jews but one day I did go back and consult old copies of the New York Times from those tragic years. Pius was a lifelong diplomat and he spoke in the kind of rarefied, abstract, opaque language of diplomacy, made further inaccessible by his exalted view of his office, references to "our august office" and the like. But, within that language, the reporters knew and reported that Pius was denouncing the Nazis. In his 1942 Christmas message, Pius XII said: "There is, besides, the conception which claims for particular nations, or classes, the juridical instinct as the final imperative and the norm from which there is no appeal; finally, there are those various theories which, differing among themselves, and deriving from opposite ideologies, agree in considering the State, or a group which represents it, as an absolute and supreme entity, exempt from control and from criticism even when its theoretical and practical postulates result in and offend by, their open denial of essential tenets of the human Christian conscience." Now, that doesn’t sound like a vigorous denunciation to me, but in Pope-speak circa 1942, everyone understood what he was saying. I also have to wonder how greatly perceptions of Pius have been shaped by Hochhuth’s play "The Deputy." I wonder if that play had never been written if people would view Pius’ role the way they do. And, am I the only person who objects to the "heroic virtue" decree not just because of its affect on Jewish-Catholic relations but because I have not forgiven Pius for Humani Generis!?!?
Yet, who can argue with the words spoken at the ceremony yesterday by Riccadro Pacifici, the head of the Jewish congregation in Rome, words that capture the exquisitely painful reality of the Shoah: "Perhaps he could not have stopped the trains of death, but he could have transmitted a signal, a final word of comfort, for our brothers on their way to the camps of Auschwitz." Pacifici recognizes that Pius may have been powerless, but that his relative silence does not escape judgement.
Many years ago, and I apologize for being unable to find the source, I read an interview of a Catholic priest, I believe he was a biblical scholar, who had lived in Jerusalem most of his life. He was asked what needed to be done to improve Jewish-Christian relations. He said that we needed to say less because our shared history was so fraught with difficulties that most of the language we could use to begin a dialogue is so open to misunderstanding, so laden with alternate meanings, that dialogue was as alikely to lead to further alienation as to truer understanding. He suggested that first we just be together more, learn each other’s habits and thoughts, without commentary, and then, respectfully, begin to ask questions of the other. For Christians, forgiveness, too, is something we need to ask of our "elder brothers" because for most of the two thousand years of our shared relationship, we have treated Jews shamefully, even murderously. Whatever you think of Pius XII, no one can defend the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by the government of Pope Pius IX, or the creation of the ghetto in Rome and other Catholic cities, or the involvement of prominent Catholic anti-Semites in the prosecution of Dreyfuss, or, well, you get the picture.
The Pope’s visit to the synagogue was powerful, even if it did not have the wonderment of John Paul’s first visit, nor the kind of explicit explanation or even apology for the behavior of Christians, including Popes, in the past that would have revolutionized the relationship. But, it was good that he went. It is good to be together. It is good to pray together. Benedict, like John Paul II, showed that a Pope belongs in a synagogue. And, that is, in itself, quite a change from only a few decades ago.
Michael Sean Winters