01/18/2010, 00.00
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Pope’s visit to Rome synagogue: taking into account Israel and the Church in Israel

by David-Maria A. Jaeger, ofm*
The Apostolic Nuncio to the Holy Land, the Custos of the Holy Land and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem were among those invited to take part in Benedict XVI’s meeting with Rome’s Jewish community. The relationship between the State of Israel and the Church in the Holy Land is central to future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
Rome (AsiaNews) - It would seem to have by now become de rigueur for the reigning Pontiff to make a visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome – like, for example, the visit to the President of the Italian Republic (and the President’s visit to the Vatican Apostolic Palace) – and it is good that this is so, it is comforting. To be sure, on each occasion it is a matter for a choice that the Pope makes with sovereign freedom, but an expected one, a foreseeable one. The truly “historic” and the properly “epoch making” importance are inevitably reserved to the very first occasion, which being the “first in history” is therefore necessarily unrepeatable as such. If nonetheless the visit that the Supreme Pontiff has deigned to make to the Great Synagogue of Rome on 17 January 2010, although being the second one, after the first one made by the Venerable John Paul II (in 1986), may yet be seen by future historians as “epoch making” in its own right, this may well be due to a truly singular circumstance: Provision was made for the presence in the Synagogue, with the Pope, of the principal Authorities of the Catholic Church in Israel: The Apostolic Nuncio, the Custos of the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. The territories of the respective missions of the Custos and the Patriarch do, it is true, extend well beyond the confines of the Jewish State, but they do include it in its entirety. Their presence – however come by, perhaps variously – appears to me to be extremely eloquent by itself. In effect, it opportunely reflected – and highlighted – the centrality of Israel in the relations between Catholics and Jews everywhere.

For decades the Jewish officials who participated in the structured – formal - dialogues with the Catholic Church in general, and with the Holy See in particular, insisted on recognition by the Church of the central role that, they maintained, the Jewish State has in the awareness that Jews today have of their own identity. The Catholic participants, in turn, duly faithful to the “models” proper to our own Catholic religion, had difficulty in placing a political, temporal, contingent entity, a State, within discourse that they held as needing to be by nature a religious, moral and spiritual dialogue. The Christian faith, like the biblical teaching of the Prophets of Israel, does not permit the assignment of intrinsic religious value to any merely human, contingent, temporal entity, which is instead subject to judgment in accordance with its conformity at any given time with the values and the requirements of (natural and positive) divine law.

But, in truth, the dialogue with exponents of the Jewish religion, in its diverse “denominations” (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, with their myriads of sub-distinctions), is only one dimension of any relationship with the Jewish People, which has for a long time now included many members who do not profess or practice their ancestral religion, but who nonetheless value deeply their Jewish identity, their bonds of solidarity with the whole People. For these in particular – but not only for them – lived Jewish identity today is defined by sympathy, support and concern for the State of Israel. This is a reality that does indeed go beyond our own pre-constituted “models” – because we Catholics are a religion, the Church, not one among the peoples of the world – but which assuredly exists (and is also that of many of the Jews who recognise the Saviour in the Person of Jesus, be they Catholics, Protestants or plain “Jews for Jesus”, and who cannot, of course, be left out of the dialogue between their faith and their People – but this is yet another subject). Restricting the dialogue with the Jewish People to the “religious” sector alone, would risk impoverishing it, limiting it only to “religious professionals” and to their learned discourse and theological “disputations”.

The truly new era inaugurated by the signing, on 30 December 1993, of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, has changed the terms of the discourse, has broadened it and has re-oriented it. Without, of course, abandoning the specifically religious dialogue between ministers of religion – rather, revitalizing it – the central point of reference of the overall relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People becomes the particular – yet decisive – relationship between the Church that lives in the Holy Land and the Jewish State. This State, in effect, has committed itself, by its own deeply secular Declaration of Independence (14 May 1948) to recognise the rights and freedoms of, among others, also the Church - be they inherent or acquired rights - and to ensure “perfect equality” for all persons in its territory. The Fundamental Agreement expresses, in effect, the shared will of the Parties to translate these primordial commitments into concrete norms and procedures; a shared will that has still a long way to go before being carried out completely.

Thus, assigning to Israel a priority status in the dialogue between Catholics and Jews – as long called for by many Jewish participants in the “institutional” dialogues – should no longer be for Catholics the feared occasion for finding themselves supportive of, among other things, also sometimes questionable temporal policies (as would be those of any State). On the contrary, it should be an occasion for contributing, however modestly (as befits a “little flock”), to the civil progress of a society and a political community that, humanly speaking, holds in its hands the destinies of the presence, the life, the work and the witness of the Church of Christ in His – and Her – native Land. Indeed, by now a dialogical relationship between Catholics and Jews that did not in some way have at its centre - as somehow a decisive element – the actual relationship between the Jewish State and the Church that is in Israel, could not but appear to many to be artificial and unreal, bogged down in the past while needing instead to be firmly placed in the present and orientated towards the future. It is the present that we are shaping day by day and the future that is ours to build together.

* A Franciscan Priest of the Holy Land, born in Israel, and a member of the Jewish People.

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