On his first visit to Rome’s synagogue as pope, Francis called on Catholics and Jews to “strengthen” their common “commitment for peace and justice” in a world where “conflicts, wars, violence and injustice open deep wounds in humanity.”
In his address to 1,500 members of the Roman and Italian Jewish communities (core population 28,000) as well as representatives of Jewish communities from many countries including Israel, Pope Francis remembered the Shoah in which six million Jews died during World War II and the deportation in 1943 of more than 1,000 men, women and children from the ghetto where the synagogue stands.
“The violence of man against man is in contradiction with every religion worthy of that name, including with the three great monotheistic religions,” he stated in words that are particularly relevant in these times.
He told his distinguished audience that “God is the God of life, and He wishes always to promote and defend it, and we—created in His image and likeness—are held to do the same.”
Then, in words that drew one of the many rounds of applause during his talk, he reminded them that “every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother, regardless of his or her origin or religious affiliation. Each person must be viewed with favor, just as God does, who offers his merciful hand to all, regardless of their faith and of their belonging, and who cares for those who most need him: the poor, the sick, the marginalized.”
They applauded again when he said, “Where life is in danger, we are called even more to protect it. Neither violence nor death will have the last word before God, the God of love and life. We must pray with insistence to help us put into practice the logic of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of life, in Europe, in the Holy Land, in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere in the world.”
As he acknowledged in his speech, Francis is the third pope to visit this synagogue, after John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010. He arrived under extraordinarily high security measures at this temple that was built in 1870, following the unification of Italy. Located on the other side of the River Tiber from the Vatican, it stands in the heart of the ghetto where Jews were confined by papal decree for more than three centuries, and it is home to the oldest community of the Jewish diaspora. Jews have in fact lived in Rome for some 2,200 years, as the President of Rome’s Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello, said in her speech of welcome.
The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, welcomed the Pope on arrival at the synagogue on this cold Sunday afternoon and said the visit highlighted two “signs”: the sign of continuity and the sign of the urgency of the times. Continuity because as the third pope to come here, his visit is “a sign that the Catholic Church does not want to step back from the path of reconciliation.” Moreover, “Pope Francis' personal commitment confirms this intention, as indicated by the great attention he has always attached to Judaism,” as archbishop in Buenos Aires and now as pope.
As for the second sign, he said this is dictated by the urgency of the times because the Near East, Europe and many other parts of the world are besieged by wars and terrorism and “violence has come back and it is fed and justified by fanatic visions inspired by religion, and again this triggers religious persecutions.” And while “this destructive drive finds it support and nourishment in religion,” he said today’s meeting “is a very strong sign against the invasion and abuse of religious violence.”
Francis began his speech by extending his greeting not only to those present in the synagogue but also to the 14 million Jews scattered across the world (an estimated 83 percent of them live in Israel and the United States), and telling them that relations between Catholics and Jews “are very close to my heart.”
He recalled that in Buenos Aires “I used to go to the synagogues and meet the communities gathered there, I used to follow Jewish festivities and commemorations and give thanks to the Lord who gives us life and accompanies us on the path of history.”
Indeed Israel’s Rabbi David Rosen, who was in the synagogue for the visit, is on record as saying that no pope in history – not even John Paul II – has understood the Jewish religion as this one does. His closeness to the Jewish people was evident too during the visit in which he shook hands, embraced and sometimes exchanged words with many of those present.
The Argentine pope recalled that John Paul II had called Jews the "elder brothers" of Christians, and he added, “in fact you are our brothers and sisters in the faith. We all belong to one family, the family of God, who accompanies and protects us, His people.” He told them, “It is my hope that closeness, mutual understanding and respect between our two communities continue to grow.”
He said the Second Vatican Council opened this path to closeness when it issued the document, “Nostra Aetate” some 50 years ago that “made possible the systematic dialogue between the Catholic Church and Judaism.” As a result of that, Christian-Jewish relations have been transformed and “indifference and opposition have changed into cooperation and benevolence. From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers.” He drew more applause when he told them that that Council document indicated the way ahead by saying “ ‘yes’ to rediscovering Christianity’s Jewish roots” and, “ ‘no’ to every form of anti-Semitism and blame for every wrong, discrimination and persecution deriving from it.”
Francis recalled that “Nostra Aetate” “explicitly defined theologically for the first time the Catholic Church's relations with Judaism” and while not providing solutions to “all the theological issues that affect us” it did provide “an important stimulus for further necessary reflections,” and this led to the new document from the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews that was published last December. He said “the theological dimension of Jewish-Catholic dialogue deserves to be more thorough” and encouraged all involved in this “to continue in this direction, with discernment and perseverance”
Pope Francis emphasized that “from a theological point of view, it is clear there is an inseparable bond between Christians and Jews. Christians, to be able to understand themselves, cannot not refer to their Jewish roots, and the church, while professing salvation through faith in Christ, recognizes the irrevocability of the Covenant and God’s constant and faithful love for Israel.” His words provoked warm applause.
In addition to the theological questions, Francis said Catholics and Jews must pay attention to “the big challenges facing the world today” including the need for “an integral ecology” and “the care of creation,” which is part of the Bible’s message.
Then, in a particularly touching part of his speech, he recalled that during its history “the Jewish people has had to experience violence and persecution, to the point of extermination of European Jews during the Holocaust. Six million people, just because they belonged to the Jewish people, were victims of the most inhumane barbarity perpetrated in the name of an ideology that wanted to replace God with man. On October 16, 1943, over a thousand men, women and children Rome’s Jewish community were deported to Auschwitz.”
Speaking with emotion, he told his audience, “Today I wish to remember them from my heart in a special way: their suffering, their fear, their tears must never be forgotten. And the past must serve as a lesson for the present and for the future. The Holocaust teaches us that utmost vigilance is always needed to be able to take prompt action in defense of human dignity and peace.”
As he made his way to the front of the synagogue on his arrival, accompanied by the Chief Rabbi, Pope Francis saw and greeted several survivors of the Shoah and, near the end of his speech, he had special words for them, saying: “I would like to express my closeness to every witness of the Holocaust who is still living; and I address a special greeting to those who are present here today.”
Further underlining his closeness to the Roman Jewish community for two tragic events in the first and second part of the twentieth century, Francis first placed a wreath of flowers beneath a plaque commemorating the deportation of over 1000 Jews from this ghetto in 1943. Later, he laid another wreath under a plaque commemorating Stefano Gai Tache, a child who died here during a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1982. He met the child’s family, and those who were injured in that attack.
Francis concluded his speech by telling his Jewish audience “we really have to be thankful for all that has been realized in the last fifty years, because between us mutual understanding, mutual trust and friendship have grown and deepened,” and urging them: “Let us pray together to the Lord, to lead the way to a better future.”
He ended with this prayer: “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace! Shalom Alechem!”
When he finished speaking, the 1,500 persons present in the synagogue gave him a standing ovation, and Francis smiling broadly made a gesture to them with his hands, requesting that they pray for him.