The anticipation reached a crescendo as the Holy Father entered the great Synagogue Sunday afternoon in Rome. The occasion was celebrated by kind words from all involved hoping for continued solidarity and dialogue, with only brief mention of Pope Pius XII after all.
Rome has seen a second Pope enter the Tempio Maggiore, or Great Synagogue, of Rome as Benedict XVI paid a visit to the Jewish community on Sunday afternoon. At some points of the program he was visibly moved.
Before entering the synagogue, the Pope and members the Pontifical family were met on a nearby street by the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici; President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, and other members of the Jewish community. The three leaders and their retinues paid homage to Jewish Romans killed in the Holocaust in 1943 and a small child killed outside of the Tempio Maggiore in 1982. Flowers were left at monuments remembering the dead.
On their way to the synagogue, the group also made a stop to greet Rabbi Emeritus Dr. Elio Toaff, now in his mid-nineties, the man who was Chief Rabbi of Rome when Venerable Pope John Paul II visited the site in 1986. The encounter was a happy one, with Pope Benedict showing great joy at meeting the man who was held in such high esteem by his predecessor.
Pope Benedict and the leaders of the Jewish community entered the synagogue to rays of sunlight on an otherwise overcast and cold day in Rome.
The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, met the Pope at the top of the central stairs in the stunningly beautiful interior of the synagogue.
As the leaders of the Catholic and Jewish communities exchanged addresses, there were many words spoken of mutual appreciation. Both the Pope and the Chief Rabbi referred to the work of the Second Vatican Council as fundamental to the good rapport the two religions enjoy today. Pope Benedict called the teachings of the Council a "clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant age.
"The Council gave a strong impetus to our irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship, a journey which has been deepened and developed in the last forty years, through important steps and significant gestures," Pope Benedict said.
Chief Rabbi Di Segni also commented on its importance, saying that without the Council "there would be no further possibility for dialogue."
The rabbi also thanked the Holy Father, saying, "(he) has brought us to a period of freedom," adding that since Vatican II the relationship between the Jewish community and Catholics has been "in terms of dignity as equals and mutual respect."
Riccardo Pacifici touched on the issue that was the source of the most controversy leading up to the occasion—the Pope's recent approval of Pius XII's life as displaying "heroic virtue." Pacifici asked, "with maximum respect," for a "shared judgment" on documents from the archives regarding the actions of the Pope during World War II.
Pope Benedict briefly addressed the same theme as he decried the treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and the indifference of some in coming to their aid, but, he stated, "many, including Italian Catholics, sustained by their faith and by Christian teaching, reacted with courage, often at risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down, and earning perennial gratitude.
"The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way," he underscored.
The Holy Father added, "the memory of these events compels us to strengthen the bonds that unite us so that our mutual understanding, respect and acceptance may always increase."
On the subject of unity, all of the speakers spoke about the importance of continued solidarity, mutual respect and efforts towards "open and sincere" dialogue to facilitate the improvement of Catholic and Jewish relations.
The Holy Father emphasized major sources of unity between the two religions, among which he included the 10 Commandments which establish a shared witness to the one God, to the protection of life "against every injustice and abuse" and the preservation and promotion of the family.
Pope Benedict XVI closed by praying that "this proximity be animated by a growing fraternal love, expressed also in closer cooperation, so that we may offer a valid contribution to solving the problems and difficulties that we still face."
Immediately following the addresses and a closing song, Pope Benedict met with Chief Rabbi Di Segni privately. Later, the Pontiff helped inaugurate an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Rome, adjacent to the Tempio Maggiore.