The contribution of Francis’ two immediate predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI was crucial.
But the roots of the dialogue between
Catholics and Jews that is celebrated on 17 January with the special Day
for Judaism and which was consecrated by Wojtyla and by his many
gestures and words, much deeper.
After centuries of misunderstandings,
humiliation, oppression in Christian Europe, the 20th century marked a
change of course, which was undoubtedly triggered by the immense tragedy
of the Holocaust.
Readers will recall the example of
the famous phrase pronounced by a deeply moved Pius XI in September 1938
during an audience with a group of Belgian Catholics at a time when
Europe was on the brink of war: “Anti-Semitism is unacceptable.
Spiritually, we are all Semites".
But it must also be recalled that two
months earlier, on 29 July of that same year, Pius XI said the following
words to his students at the Propaganda Fide College: “The whole of
humankind, is a single, great universal human race. There is no room for
special races… Human dignity consists in us being one great family,
humankind, the human race. This is the belief of the Church."
message was heavily criticised by the German press and branded as being
against the culture and dignity of Nazi Germany.
There has been a
great deal of discussion and there will continue to be, surrounding the
figure an choices of his successor, Pius XII, although current affairs
journalism and historiography now offer more objective interpretations
of Pacelli’s pontificate.
Ideologically, he is presented as “Hitler’s
Pope”. Without entering into the controversial matter of the so-called
“silences”, there are many initiatives that could be cited here, which
the Pope himself carried out or agreed to in order to assist and protect
But it is also worth recalling that
during high school, Eugenio Pacelli had become friends with a young man
named Guido Mendes, who was a member of Rome’s Jewish community. He was
the descendent of a reputable family of doctors and medical scholars
that dated back to the physician to the royal court of King Charles II
The day after Pius XII’s death, Dr. Mendes, who at the time
was living in Ramat Gan in Israel, told the Jerusalem Post of his
friendship with the Pope , which dated back to their days at Liceo
Visconti: “Pacelli was the first Pope who back in his youth attended a
Shabbat dinner in a Jewish house and informally discussed Jewish
theology with eminent members of Rome’s community”.
In 1938, the future
Pius XII, then Secretary of State, did his utmost to help the Mendes
family, which had been affected by the shameful anti-Semitic laws
promulgated by Italy’s fascist government.
The cardinal arranged for
their safe passage to Switzerland and from here they were able to
emigrate to Palestine the following year.
should be recalled that Pius XIIwas the first Pope after more than ten
centuries who made small modifications in favour of the Jews to the
liturgy. Ever since the pontificate of Gregory the Great, the Good
Friday liturgy referred to perfidi Judaei and perfidia Judaica.
The term “perfidi” in Latin means “misbelievers”. But when texts were
introduced in the vernacular and in translation, the Latin term
“perfidi” became “perfidious” in English, “perfide” in French, “treulos”
in German, “trouweloos” in Dutch and “perfidy” in Italian, clearly
suggesting moral condemnation.
Pius XII, who was asked by the Chief
Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, to remove that expression, did not grant
the rabbi’s request but had the Congregation of Rites issue a
clarification on the matter, which was published on 10 June 1948.
over a year later, on 16 October 1949, Jewish professor Jules Isaac,
who was received in an audience at Castelgandolfo, pointed out another
problem to Pacelli. In the same Good Friday liturgy, unlike in other
cases, when prayers were said for the Jews, the people and the priest
would not kneel but remained standing. Isaac explained that “the
omission of genuflection during the prayer for the Jews, was perhaps
even more serious than the mistranslation of perfidus”.
years later, as Pacelli was reforming the Holy Week liturgy, he
introduced the genuflection gesture to the prayer for Jews, as was done
during other prayers within that rite. These steps, albeit small and
hesitant, for sure, were nevertheless – as the then honorary consul of
Israel to Milan, Pinchas Lapide wrote – “were the first improvements
made in favour of the Jews to be introduced in the Catholic tradition
since the Middle Ages and they opened the door to deeper and broader
It was St. John XXIII, the Pope who
stopped his car in front of the Roman Synagogue to greet and bless the
Jews who were just leaving the temple, who definitively abolished the
expression “perfidi guidei” from the liturgy. In March 1959, Roncalli
decided to alter the controversial Good Friday prayer, removing the
terms “perfidi” and “perfidia” from the text.
This led to other
initiatives by the same Pope to remove other formulas and prayers that
may have been offensive toward the Jews: from the reference to deicide
in the formula for the consecration of the human race to the sacred
heart of Jesus introduced by Leo XIII to those regarding “Iudaica
Perfidia” and “Hebraica superstitio” present in the Roman Ritual, during
the rite of the conversion of Jews for baptism.
The Council and the “Nostra Aetate”,
promulgated by Paul VI, marked the turning point.
The text recalls
that “what happened” in Jesus’ Passion “cannot be charged against all
the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of
It states that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or
accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All
should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of
the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the
truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”
Finally, it specifies
that “the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and
moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love,
decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed
against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
momentous change needed to be turned into concrete gestures. The turning
point came with John Paul II and is tied to the Pope’s personal life
story. The man who rose to the Chair of St. Peter was someone who
experienced first-hand the tragedy of war in a devastated Poland.
been born in Wadowice, a small town with a large Jewish community, he
had forged many ties with Jewish schoolmates and playmates. Many of them
later died in Nazi concentration camps.
The question mark surrounding
their sacrifice would torment John Paul II, who as Pope – as observed by
Norberto Hofmann, Secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations
with the Jews – felt it was his duty “to personally commit to the
development and intensification of the Catholic Church’s friendship with
On 7 June 1979, Wojtyla visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau
concentration camp and prayed before the monument to the Holocaust
victims: “Before this gravestone, no one can remain indifferent”.
more significant was his visit to the Roman synagogue on 13 April 1986
and his embrace with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff in front of the
Great Temple. The Holy See’s diplomatic recognition of Israel as a
state at the end of 1993, marked a further step forward in relations.
The “We Remember” document, a reflection on the Holocaust, was published
under John Paul II’s pontificate, in 1998.
In the penitential liturgy
of the 2000 Jubilee, Wojtyla asked for forgiveness for the wrongdoings
against the people of Israel. Just a few days after the liturgy, John
Paul II visited the Holy Land, where he prayed before the Western Wall
and visited the Yad-Vashem memorial, praying for the Holocaust victims
and meeting some survivors.
Frequent meetings started to be held with
Jewish delegations both in the Vatican and during papal visits abroad.
Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, came a theologian Pope who had
meditated on the special and unique bond between Christians and Jews,
more than anyone else. One of his first messages the day after his
election, was addressed to Rome’s rabbi, Professor Riccardo Di Segni.
Benedict XVI also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on
28 May 2006 and repeated the gestures of his rpedecessor during a visit
to Israel in May 2009. Ratzinger visited the synagogue of Cologne in
2005, of New York in 2008 and of Rome in 2010.
“Our closeness and
spiritual fraternity,” said Benedict XVI in his speech at the Great
Temple in Rome, “find in the Holy Bible in Hebrew Sifre Qodesh
or "Book of Holiness" their most stable and lasting foundation, which
constantly reminds us of our common roots, our history and the rich
spiritual patrimony that we share. It is in pondering her own mystery
that the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant, discovers her
own profound bond with the Jews, who were chosen by the Lord before all
others to receive his word.”
After these historic gestures
and detailed theological study, the Church, under Pope Francis – who
also has a personal history of friendship with the Jewish community in
Buenos Aires – has entered the friendship phase, relations have thawed
even further, as was demonstrated by the cordiality of his visit to the
Roman synagogue in January 2016.
One of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s most
important texts before he was elected Pope, were his conversations with
Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka. During his trip to Poland in July
2016, Francis followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, visiting
Auschwitz-Birkenau: he chose not to add to the eloquent words already
pronounced by his predecessors preferring instead to express himself
with total silence.