Address at the Great Synagogue of Rome
April 13, 1986

Dear Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Rome,
Dear President of the Union of Italian Jewish communities,
Dear President of the Community in Rome,
Dear Rabbis,
Dear Jewish and Christian friends and brethren taking part in this historic celebration:

1. 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 (cf. Is 51:16) 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” (Gen 22:17; cf. Is 15:5) – 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.

I likewise feel it is my duty to thank the Chief Rabbi, Professor Elio Toaff, who from the first moment accepted with joy the idea that I should make this visit, and who is now receiving me with great openness of heart and a profound sense of hospitality; and in addition to him I also thank all those members of the Jewish community in Rome who have made this meeting possible and who is so many ways have worked to ensure that it should be at one and the same time a reality and a symbol.

Many thanks therefore to you all. Todâ rabbâ (Many Thanks).

2. In the light of the Word of God that has just been proclaimed and that lives for ever (cf. Is 30:8), I would like us to reflect together, in the presence of the Holy One-may He be blessed! (as your liturgy says) – on the fact and the significance of this meeting between the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and the Jewish community that lives and works in this city which is so dear to you and to me. I had been thinking of this visit for a long time. In fact, the Chief Rabbi was kind enough to come and see me, in February 1981, when I paid a pastoral visit to the nearby Parish of San Carlo ai Catenari. In addition, a number of you have been more than once to the Vatican, on the occasion of the numerous audiences that I have been able to have with representatives of Italian and world Jewry, and still earlier, in the time of my predecessors Paul VI, John XXIII and Pius XII. I am likewise well aware that the Chief Rabbi, on the night before the death of Pope John, did not hesitate to go to Saint Peter’s Square; and accompanied by members of the Jewish faithful, he mingled with the crowd of Catholics and other Christians, in order to pray and keep vigil, as it were bearing witness, in a silent but very effective way, to the greatness of soul of that Pontiff, who was open to all people without distinction, and in particular to the Jewish brethren. The heritage that I would now like to take up is precisely that of Pope John, who on one occasion, as he passed by here – as the Chief Rabbi has just mentioned – stopped the car so that he could bless the crowd of Jews who were coming out of this very Temple. And I would like to take up his heritage at this very moment, when I find myself not just outside, but, thanks to your generous hospitality, inside the Synagogue of Rome.

3. This gathering in a way brings to a close, after the Pontificate of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, a long period which we must not tire of reflecting upon in order to draw from it the appropriate lessons. Certainly, we cannot and should not forget that the historical circumstances of the past were very different from those that have laboriously matured over the centuries. The general acceptance of a legitimate plurality on the social, civil and religious levels has been arrived at with great difficulty. Nevertheless, a consideration of centuries-long cultural conditioning could not prevent us from recognizing that the acts of discrimination, unjustified limitation of religion freedom, oppression also on the level of civil freedom in regard to the Jews were, from an objective point of view, gravely deplorable manifestations. Yes, once again, through myself, the Church, in the words of the well-known Declaration Nostra Aetate (no. 4), “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone;” I repeat: “by anyone.”

I would like once more to express a word of abhorrence for the genocide decreed against the Jewish people during the last War, which led to the holocaust of millions of innocent victims.

When I visited on June 7, 1979 the concentration camp at Auschwitz and prayed for the many victims from various nations, I paused in particular before the memorial stone with the inscription in Hebrew and thus manifested the sentiments of my heart:  “This inscription stirs the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were destined to total extermination. This People has its origin in Abraham, who is our father in faith” (cf. Rom 4:12), as Paul of Tarsus expressed it. Precisely this people, which received from God the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” has experienced in itself to a particular degree what killing means. Before this inscription it is not permissible for anyone to pass by with indifference” (Insegnamenti, 1979, p. 1484). The Jewish community of Rome too paid a high price in blood. And it was surely a significant gesture that in those dark years of racial persecution the doors of our religious houses, of our churches, of the Roman Seminary, of buildings belonging to the Holy See and of Vatican City itself were thrown open to offer refuge and safety to so many Jews of Rome being hunted by their persecutors.

4. Today’s visit is meant to make a decisive contribution to the consolidation of the good relations between our two communities, in imitation of the example of so many men and women who have worked and who are still working today, on both sides, to overcome old prejudices and to secure ever wider and fuller recognition of that “bond” and that “common spiritual patrimony” that exists between Jews and Christians.

This is the hope expressed in the fourth paragraph of the Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate, which I have just mentioned, on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. The decisive turning-point in relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism, and with individual Jews, was occasioned by this brief but incisive paragraph.

We are all aware that, among the riches of this paragraph no. 4 of Nostra Aetate, three points are especially relevant. I would like to underline them here, before you, in this truly unique circumstance. The first is that the Church of Christ discovers her “bond” with Judaism by “searching into her own mystery” (cf. Nostra Aetate, ibid.) The Jewish religion is not “extrinsic” to us, but in a certain way is “intrinsic” to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.

The second point noted by the Council is that no ancestral or collective blame can be imputed to the Jews as a people for “what happened in Christ’s passion” (cf. Nostra Aetate, ibid.) Not indiscriminately to the Jews of that time, nor to those who came afterwards, nor to those of today. So any alleged theological justification for discriminatory measures or, worse still, for acts of persecution is unfounded. The Lord will judge each one “according to his own works,” Jews and Christians alike (cf. Rom 2:6)

The third point that I would like to emphasize in the Council’s Declaration is a consequence of the second. Notwithstanding the Church’s awareness of her own identity, it is not lawful to say that the Jews are “repudiated or cursed,” as it this were taught or could be deduced from the Sacred Scriptures of the Old or the New Testament (cf. Nostra Aetate, ibid.).  Indeed, the Council had already said in this same text of Nostra Aetate, but also in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 16, referring to Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans (11:28-29), that the Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.

5. On these convictions rest our present relations. On the occasion of this visit to your Synagogue, I wish to reaffirm them and to proclaim them in their perennial value. For this is the meaning which is to be attributed to my visit to you, to the Jews of Rome. It is not of course because the differences between us have now been overcome that I have come among you. We know well that this is not so. First of all, each of our religions, in the full awareness of the many bonds which unite them to each other, and in the first place that “bond” which the Council spoke of, wishes to be recognized and respected in its own identity, beyond any syncretism and any ambiguous appropriation.

Furthermore, it is necessary to say that the path undertaken is still at the beginning, and therefore a considerable amount of time will still be needed, notwithstanding the great efforts already made on both sides, to remove all forms of prejudice, even subtle ones, to readjust every manner of self-expression and therefore to present always and everywhere, to ourselves and to others, the true face of the Jews and of Judaism, as likewise of Christians and of Christianity, and this at every level of outlook, teaching and communication. In this regard, I would like to remind my brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church, also those living in Rome, of the fact that the guidelines for implementing the Council in this precise field are already available to everyone in the two documents published respectively in 1974 and in 1985 by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. It is only a question of studying them carefully, of immersing oneself in their teachings and of putting them into practice.

Perhaps there still remain between us difficulties of the practical order waiting to be overcome on the level of fraternal relations: these are the result of centuries of mutual misunderstanding, and also of different positions and attitudes, not easily settled, in complex and important matters.

No one is unaware that the fundamental difference from the very beginning has been the attachment of us Catholics to the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, a son of your People, from which were also born the Virgin Mary, the Apostles who were the “foundations and pillars of the Church” and the greater part of the first Christian community. But this attachment is located in the order of faith, that is to say in the free assent of the mind and heart guided by the Spirit, and it can never be the object of exterior pressure, in one sense or the other. This is the reason why we wish to deepen dialogue in loyalty and friendship, in respect for one another’s intimate convictions, taking as a fundamental basis the elements of the Revelation which we have in common, as a “great spiritual patrimony” (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4)

6. It must be said, then, that the ways opened for our collaboration, in the light of our common heritage drawn from the Law and Prophets, are various and important. We wish to recall first of all a collaboration in favor of man, his life from conception until natural death, his dignity, his freedom, his rights, his self-development in a society which is not hostile but friendly and favorable, where justice reigns and where, in this nation, on the various continents and throughout the world, it is peace that rules, the shalom hoped for by the lawmakers, prophets and wise men of Israel.

More in general, there is the problem of morality, the great field of individual and social ethics. We are all aware of how acute the crisis is on this point in the age in which we are living. In a society which is often lost in agnosticism and individualism and which is suffering the bitter consequences of selfishness and violence, Jews and Christians are the trustees and witnesses of an ethic marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom. To promote a common reflection and collaboration on this point is one of the great duties of the hour.

And finally I wish to address a thought to this City in which there live side by side the Catholic community with its Bishops, and the Jewish community with its authorities and its Chief Rabbi. Let this not be a mere “co-existence,” a kind of juxtaposition, interspersed with limited and occasional meetings, but let it be animated by fraternal love.

7. The problems of Rome are many. You know this well. Each one of us, in the light of that blessed heritage to which I alluded earlier, is conscious of an obligation to work together, at least to some degree, for their solution. Let us seek, as far as possible, to do so together; from this visit of mine and from the harmony and serenity which we have attained may there flow forth a fresh and health-giving spring like the river that Ezekiel saw gushing from the eastern gate of the Temple of Jerusalem (cf. Ez 47:1ff.), which will help to heal the wounds from which Rome is suffering.

In doing this, I venture to say, we shall each be faithful to our most sacred commitments, and also to that which most profoundly unites and gathers us together: faith in the One God who “loves strangers and “renders justice to the orphan and the widow” (cf. Dt 10:18), commanding us too to love and help them (cf. ibid., and Lev 19:18:34). Christians have learned this desire of the Lord from the Torah, which you here venerate, and from Jesus, who took to its extreme consequences the love demanded by the Torah.

8.  All that remains for me now, as at the beginning of my address, is to turn my eyes and my mind to the Lord, to thank Him and praise Him for this joyful meeting and for the good things which are already flowing from it, for the rediscovered brotherhood and for the new and more profound understanding between us here in Rome, and between the Church and Judaism everywhere, in every country, for the benefit of all.

Therefore I would like to say with the Psalmist, in his original language which is also your own inheritance:

hodû la-Adonai ki tob

ki le-olam hasdô
yomar-na Yisrael
ki le-olam hasdô
yomerû-na yir’è Adonai
ki le-olam hasdô 
(Ps 118:1 – 2.4).

O give thanks to the Lord for He is good,
His steadfast love endures for ever Let Israel say,
His steadfast love endures for ever!
Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures for ever!”