ROME -- Just as the massive TV trucks parked around Rome's synagogue obscured the sight of one of the city's most beautiful buildings, so too have news reports obscured the real importance of the pope's visit to the Jewish community here.
Late Sunday afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI made the short trip across the Tiber River to the Great Synagogue of Rome, located on the site of the former Jewish ghetto. The weather was chilly, but the greetings just the opposite.
Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, and Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Jewish Community of Rome, welcomed the pope on the steps of the synagogue amid thunderous cheers of "Viva il Papa!" Benedict was accompanied by Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio in Israel, to underscore his encouragement of inter-religious relations by drawing Rome and Israel closer together.
Despite the trite headlines about the "Pope's Controversial Visit," there was no real controversy; the chief rabbi had extended the invitation to Benedict in 2006 and the Roman Jewish community pulled out all the stops for this event. This was Benedict's third visit to a Jewish place of worship (after stops at the synagogues of Cologne in 2005 and New York in 2008). Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit the Roman synagogue in April 1986, and Benedict, following in his predecessor's footsteps, has now created a double precedent. Future popes will now be expected to visit the synagogue, just as they do the mayor's office, Parliament and the local parishes.
As with the pope's Holy Land trip, this visit began with an acknowledgment of the suffering of the Jewish community through the Holocaust and other violence. Benedict first placed red roses before the memorial tablets that record the roundup and deportation of 1,022 Jews on Oct. 16, 1943; he then laid a wreath beneath the plaque commemorating the Oct. 9, 1982, terrorist attack on the synagogue, which killed a 2-year-old child, Stefano Tache.
More than merely remembering hostilities by outsiders, however, Benedict took the occasion to acknowledge the turbulent history between Christian Rome and its Jewish denizens. He chose a special date for the visit, the feast of Mo'ed di Piombo, which recalls the miraculous event of 1793 when an unexpected rainstorm put out a fire set by the Roman populace in the Jewish ghetto. Jan. 17 is also dedicated to the Study and Development of Dialogue between Catholics and Jews, celebrating its 21st anniversary this year.
The real spirit of the Benedict's visit and his encounter with the chief Rabbi was not one of recrimination but of furthering dialogue, though most major news outlets were too busy waving the red flag of WWII and Pope Pius XII to see that.
So, despite all satellite feeds streaming from the place of worship yesterday, there was no hostility, just singing and praying amid an ecstatic crowd of Muslims, Jews and Christians, all brought together in peace.
Benedict not only visited the sacred space of the synagogue but also the recently restored Jewish Museum, where numerous artifacts testify to the 2,000-year-old history and culture of the Jewish community in Rome.
For their part, officials of the Jewish Museum put together a spectacular exhibition for their visitor. Despite numerous hardships, the Jewish community managed to conserve 14 panels dating from the 18th century, made to celebrate the investiture ceremony of the popes. Curator Daniela di Castro, who accompanied the pope on his tour of the unique exhibits, noted that Benedict "is the first pontiff to visit a Jewish museum, just as the Jewish Museum of Rome is the first Jewish museum to be visited by a pope. . . . Hence, it is an immense honor for our museum."
Despite all the makings of an upbeat story amid news of natural and diplomatic disasters, most journalistic accounts focused on tensions caused by Pope Pius XII's so-called "guilty silence" regarding the Holocaust, and Pope Benedict's recent recognition of the heroic virtues of this same pope, who is on his way to sainthood.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, gave marching orders to the world press when he expressed disapproval of Benedict's support of Pius XII in an interview with Italy's Sky TG24 television last week. While the rabbi's distaste for Pius XII is a matter of public record, his historical memory has been known to be a bit foggy. He has denounced the pontiff for silence over the violence of Kristallnacht, despite the fact that Pius was not yet pope when the event took place in 1938. He also seems to have forgotten that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir commented on death of Pius XII in 1958 by writing: "We share in the grief of humanity at the passing away of His Holiness. . . . When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims. . . . We mourn a great servant of peace."
Rabbi Lau's weak mastery of history seems to be shared by Pacifici, the president of the Jewish Community of Rome. Pacifici participated pleasantly enough in Sunday's festivities, but couldn't resist a dig -- undoubtedly prompted by the multitude of TV cameras -- when he referred to the supposed silence of Pope Pius XII as a "missed opportunity."
Pius XII's actions are known to have spoken louder than his words. Gary Krupp, the Jewish founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, has dedicated the last eight years to collecting video testimony and archival evidence that demonstrate the direct action of Pope Pius XII in saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives by issuing false baptismal certificates, obtaining visas for refugees and ordering religious houses and parishes to hide Jews. Pacifici is the first to thank the religious sisters of St. Marta in Florence, who saved him during the war, but he doesn't recognize that they, like hundreds of other convents in Italy and Germany, were acting under Pius' direct orders.
Emilio Zolli, the chief rabbi of Rome during the German occupation, however, knew well of Pius' role. After the war, Zolli converted to Catholicism and took Pius' baptismal name, Eugenio. In his biography, "Before the Dawn," Zolli wrote: "No hero in all of history was more militant, more fought against, none more heroic, than Pius XII in pursuing the works of true charity."
Simple enough information for any journalist to research, but in this case, the press maintained a guilty silence of its own. The New York Times even forgot its own history. On Dec. 25, 1942, it published an editorial saying, "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe. . . . He is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all."
Instead of puzzling over whether Pius XII could have done more for the Jews, maybe we should be asking who did more?
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