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Papal Gesture Of Repentance

As Jewish Passover time approached last spring, Pope John Paul II made a remarkable gesture by attending an eighty-minute ceremony at the main Jewish synagogue in Rome. This is said to be the first time that a Pope has been known to visit a Jewish place of worship.

What was the purpose of his visit? In one sense it was to repudiate the persecution of Jewish people by the Roman Catholic Church over many centuries. The Jewish congregation in Rome is the oldest in Europe and traces its origins back to the second century before Christ. For many centuries of papal rule the Jews of Rome endured discrimination and oppression. They were confined to a ghetto and strenuous efforts were made to convert them from Judaism to Catholicism. In those times there seemed no prospect of improvement in their sad situation. Ironically they expressed their sense of hopelessness in the proverb: "The persecution will end when the Pope enters the synagogue"!

It's now over a century since the papal states were abolished and the new Italian government relieved the Jewish community in Rome from Catholic oppression. Nevertheless Pope Paul made reference in his speech at the synagogue ceremony to "the grossly deplorable manifestations of the past". "The Church deplores", he said, the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-semitism directed against the Jews at any time by anyone. I repeat, by anyone". Commenting on the event in Rome, Israel's President Herzog described it as an important step towards "the correcting of the injustices which the Church perpetrated on the Jewish people during 1500 years".

Among the thousand people who crowded the synagogue on this occasion were forty survivors of the Nazi death camps. The Pope's message expressed abhorrence at the genocide of millions of Jews under Hitler. In his response the Chief Rabbi spoke with appreciation of the Catholics who at great personal risk helped Jews in Rome during the German occupation (World War II). Out of 13,000 Jews in Rome at that time only 2,000 became victims of Nazi persecution.

There were also declarations of mutual respect, Bible readings, hymns, and the rendition by a special choir of a traditional profession of faith sung by many Jews as they were led into the gas chambers. In deference to the orthodox principles of the Jewish congregation in Rome there was no joint worship.

The climax of the ceremony was reached when the Chief Rabbi and the Pope stood for a few moments side by side in silent prayer, and then they joined in warm embrace. The synagogue resounded with applause. The occasion was described by the Chief Rabbi as "a turning point in the history of the Church that finally puts the two religions on a level of equality".

The Chief Rabbi also included in his address a call for the Vatican to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel. He urged his plea on the ground that the return of the Jews to the homeland was part of "God's final plan of redemption". The Pope remained silent on the point. How remarkable it seems that after thirty-eight years of Israel's restored nationhood this recognition should still be witheld by the Vatican!

Pope John Paul II has gone to great lengths in his efforts to break down prejudices against the Catholic Church and make overtures towards other religious groups. This visit to the synagogue in Rome was a further step in the same direction. Finding common ground in renouncing anti-semitic persecution, Pope and Rabbi could project an impression of spiritual rapport, despite the wide chasm between the theological positions of Judaism and Catholicism. Many will now view the Catholic Church more favourably because of the Pope's public acknowledgement that the anti-Jewish persecution of earlier days was wrong. From the Jewish standpoint, the Pope's declaration of respect for Judaism brings recognition which fosters a feeling of acceptance among the major religious systems.

The attitudes of Pope and Rabbi on this much publicized occasion stand in stark contrast to that of the great apostle who had once prided himself on his championship of Judaism. "Far be it from me to glory", he wrote in Galatians 6:14, "save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world". For him there could be no compromising silence about the claims of the Son of God. There could be no accommodation with a religious system which denied that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of whom the prophets had foretold. But Rome seeks precedence in the vast ecumenical movement of today's religious world, and skilfully exploits every possible means of promoting a favourable image.