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Rome Rabbi Says Pope's Visit Shows Commitment to Dialogue
Cindy Wooden
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, is seen during an interview with Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS)—Rome's chief rabbi said the planned visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the city's main synagogue and community center is a sign that Catholics and Jews are committed to respectful dialogue, even when their relationship hits stumbling blocks.

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi, told Catholic News Service there is "a solid basis" for positive relations, but "with a storm every now and then."

The rabbi spoke in his office Jan. 12, just five days before Pope Benedict's first visit to the synagogue.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, had just sent Rabbi Di Segni a telegram expressing Pope Benedict's hope that his visit would "demonstrate and increase fraternity between Jews and Catholics and would mark another step in the irrevocable path of agreement and friendship."

Rabbi Di Segni said Pope Benedict's visit is important first of all as "a symbolic continuation of the gesture made by (Pope) John Paul II, who was the first pope to set foot in a synagogue in 19 centuries. There is precedence, though," because St. Peter obviously had been in synagogues, he added.

Visiting the synagogue 23 years after Pope John Paul did "is important because it is saying that the journey undertaken has not been interrupted, but will move forward," he said.

"Times have changed," the rabbi said. "Many things have been achieved; other things still need to be done. The path, the Jewish-Catholic encounter, is terribly complicated. It is not a smooth road leading onward, but it is one continually filled with stumbling blocks. The visit of a pope to the synagogue should demonstrate that beyond the stumbling blocks there is a substantial desire to communicate with each other and resolve problems."

While the Jewish community has expressed concern over several of Pope Benedict's decisions, including his decision a year ago to lift the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust, the rabbi said the key problem is what Jews see as mixed signals from the pope about the Catholic Church's position on the religious significance of Judaism itself.

"From a strictly religious point of view, the question is the significance of Judaism. Has its role ended? Must we all convert?" he said.

While affirming that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, some Catholic theologians and some of the writings of Pope Benedict have recognized the ongoing value of the Jewish people's covenant with God.

In a book-length interview in 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the Jews have a mission to fulfill in the world until the Messiah comes again.

But, Rabbi Di Segni said, the pope is also the person who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2000 published the document "Dominus Iesus," which insisted faith in Christ was necessary for salvation.

Another point of tension, the rabbi said, is Pope Benedict's decision in December to move forward the sainthood cause of Pope Pius XII, whom many Jews believe did not do enough to denounce the Holocaust.

"It is a historical question, a problem that is still very much open," the rabbi said.

For the Jewish community, especially in Rome, the question of Pope Pius is "a dramatic one, it's a raw nerve that involves the behavior not only of that one personality, but also regards the anti-Judaism of the church and the interpretation of the Shoah," the Holocaust, he said.

The rabbi said that such a sensitive issue should be handled "much more slowly and with much deeper study."

Still, Rabbi Di Segni said, Pope Benedict's visit and other "grand gestures" made by the popes and leaders of the Jewish community have a great impact on helping faithful Catholics and Jews see one another as neighbors to be respected.

"We experience this each day, even though there may be scattered pockets of resistance or fundamentalist attitudes or even hostility" toward one another, he said.

While Rome's Jewish community has only about 10,000 registered members, he said, "our community has a huge symbolic importance because we are the community next door to the Vatican. It is here that the first Christian Jews came—there were already Jews here for two centuries and they never left, so there was always a relationship with the Vatican."

As is often the case, he said, "it's hardest to establish good relations with the person closest to you."

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, told reporters Jan. 13 that Catholic-Jewish relations increasingly have been marked by "real friendship," which allows leaders on both sides to share their concerns and hopes and work together for the good of the world.

He also agreed with Rabbi Di Segni that Pope Benedict's visit "expresses a will to continue" the dialogue.

While the public may have the impression that Pope Benedict is not as committed to Catholic-Jewish dialogue as Pope John Paul was, that is absolutely not true, Cardinal Kasper said.

"I've known (Pope Benedict) for 45 years now," he said. "He was always very much in favor of dialogue; it is very close to his heart," the cardinal said.

As for concerns about Catholic attempts to convert Jews, Cardinal Kasper said he and the pope have "spoken about this problem very often and we are in full agreement" that Christianity has a special relationship to Judaism because of the Jewish roots of Christianity.

"The church has a universal mission, it is clear," he said, but its "mission is articulated in different ways."

"A Christian has to give a witness of his faith, just as we expect the Jews to witness their faith to us," the cardinal said.

But he said an organized mission to convert Jews "is excluded; it is not possible."
"We cannot give up our belief that Jesus is the universal savior—we cannot give up this belief, and Jewish people know this. It is our belief. But we must respect each other in our otherness," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Kasper said the first decade of formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue was focused on the past and on healing, while today it is focused on what Catholics and Jews hold in common, how they can learn from each other and how their common beliefs and values can help the world.

The cardinal said Pope Benedict hopes his visit to the synagogue will continue to highlight "what we have in common: belief in one God, which is very important in a secularized world," the ongoing validity of the Ten Commandments, the obligation to safeguard human life and the family, and ways to promote justice and peace.

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