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Apr 13 The Pope and the Synagogue

The Jewish people suffered waves of persecution in Rome over the years and a proverb emerged amongst the people ‘The persecution will end when the Pope enters the synagogue.' We remember how this happened today in 1986, when John Paul II was greeted by Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff at Rome's great synagogue. In todays podcast we look at the unique conditions in the first Slavic Popes background which allowed this to happen. We also look at the reactions, and have a brief look at different theologies at play, and the state of Catholic- Jewish relations in recent years, with some fairly big speed-bumps on the road.


This was the first pope in recorded history to visit a Jewish synagogue. In a small speech at the synagogue he said, First of all, I would like, together with you, to give thanks and praise to the Lord who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth and who chose Abraham in order to make him father of a multitude of children, as numerous ''as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore,'' to give thanks and praise to Him because it has been His good pleasure, in the mystery of His providence, that this evening there should be a meeting in this your ''major temple'' between the Jewish community that has been living in this city since the times of the ancient Romans and the Bishop of Rome and universal pastor of the Catholic Church.

There is only a distance of two miles between the Vatican and Rome’s Great Synagogue but news of his visit travelled wider that that with Israel’s President Chaim Herzog saying that this was a positive sign for the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jewish community. President Herzog called it an important step towards “correcting the injustices which the church had perpetrated on the Jewish people during 1,500 years” For centuries, the Jews of Rome, under Papal Rule, had suffered discrimination and humiliation, were confined to a ghetto and were forced to attend sermons urging them to convert. Their was an ironic proverb had expressed Jewish feelings of hopelessness surrounded by a hostile culture: ‘The persecution will end when the Pope enters the synagogue.' On April 13, the Polish Pope joined the synagogue’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff “in an enthusiastic embrace” as some of the 1,000 onlookers wept.

As a child, Karol Wojtyła (the Pope) had played sports with his many Jewish neighbours. Very unusually for popes he had grown up in a climate of flourishing Jewish culture, one of the key components of pre-war Kraków, so his interest in Jewish life dated from early youth. On numerous occasions, publicly the Pope had called Jews "our elder brothers." Some theologians interpreted this as code for what is called ‘dual covenant theology’ that asserts that the Old Covenant or the Law of Moses remains valid for Jews while the New Covenant of Jesus only applies to non-Jews or gentiles. This is clearly different to the position of St Paul, whose own conversion from being a pharisee, and whose experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus radically redirected his life. Pauline writings has shaped Christian Theology.

The mainstream and orthodox Christian belief is described as supersessionist theology, that the Old Testament has been superseded or abrogated and replaced with the New Covenant. Although John Paul II supported greater dialogue between Catholics and Jews, he did not explicitly support dual-covenant theology. However he expressed his faith in more nuanced ways then many supersessionist theologians. In Germany he had delivered a speech to the Jews of Berlin, asserting that God's covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked by the further interpretation of the New Testament. He was making the subtler point that was made in Nostra Aetate from Vatican II, which says that the New Testament gave the older scripture its most complete meaning, as equally the New Testament one receives from the Old light and explanation. This is in line with the Gospel declaration of Jesus that he has not come to overthrow the Law but to fulfil it.

John Paul was the first pope to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and he had also visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Israel, and during the same visit he had also touched the holiest outward remaining shrine of the Jewish people, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Placing in its cracks a prayer that read: God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer. Later on in his pontificate, in 1994, he established formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, acknowledging its centrality in Jewish life and faith, and in honour of this event, hosted The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust. This was attended by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the President of Italy, and survivors of the Holocaust from around the world. These efforts at reconciliation where complicated when the Polish national Catholic bishops conferences supported the Carmelite Nuns in their attempt to establish a convent at Auschwitz. The Vatican did not support this convent, but noted that since Vatican II each national bishop's conference had local autonomy, but when John Paul realized that nothing was being done, he issued an order for the nuns to move.


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