This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
On Sunday, Pope Francis traveled across town to visit Rome’s synagogue that stands within the old Jewish ghetto the Catholic Church helped to create and maintain for centuries. It is here, too, that more than a thousand Jews were deported during the Holocaust.
Understandably, the Pope’s mood was somber. It was also joyous. The Pope’s presence, as was true of his two predecessors, is testimony to how relations between Jews and Catholics have changed for the better in the years since Vatican II. Catholics now affirm Jews as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey.
The movement of the Catholic Church in relation to Jews has been revolutionary. Instead of reviling and ghettoizing Jews as a sign of human and Godly punishment for betraying and rejecting Jesus, Jews are now recognized by the Church as their “elder brothers” with an enduring covenant with God. Repentance for the Church’s sins of anti-Semitism is now enshrined in Catholic teaching the world over.
In Rome’s synagogue, the Pope spoke movingly of this new era of Jewish-Christian relations:
Our relations are very close to my heart. When in Buenos Aires I used to go to the synagogues and meet the communities gathered there, I used to follow Jewish festivities and commemorations and give thanks to the Lord who gives us life and accompanies us on the path of history. Over time, a spiritual bond has been created which has favoured the birth of a genuine friendship and given life to a shared commitment. In interreligious dialogue it is essential that we meet as brothers and sisters before our Creator and to Him give praise, that we respect and appreciate each other and try to collaborate. In Jewish-Christian dialogue there is a unique and special bond thanks to the Jewish roots of Christianity: Jews and Christians must therefore feel as brothers, united by the same God and by a rich common spiritual patrimony (cf. Declaration. Nostra Aetate, 4 ), upon which to build the future.
With this visit I follow in the footsteps of my predecessors. Pope John Paul II came here thirty years ago, on 13 April 1986; and Pope Benedict XVI was among you six years ago. On that occasion John Paul II coined the beautiful description “elder brothers”, and in fact you are our brothers and sisters in the faith. We all belong to one family, the family of God, who accompanies and protects us, His people. Together, as Jews and as Catholics, we are called to take on our responsibilities towards this city, giving first of all a spiritual contribution, and favouring the resolution of various current problems. It is my hope that closeness, mutual understanding and respect between our two communities continue to grow. Thus, it is significant that I have come among you today, on January 17, the day when the Italian Episcopal Conference celebrates the “Day of dialogue between Catholics and Jews.”
Though many of the synagogue attendees and Jewish onlookers around the world were pleased with the Pope’s words, others hoped for more. For decades the interfaith dialogue has been stuck in the horrible history of the Holocaust. The ongoing reality of Israeli and diaspora Jewish complicity in the suffering of Palestinians has been relegated to the back burner of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue when broached at all. More often, Catholic and other Christians raising the issue of Palestinian suffering have faced the accusation of renewed Christian anti-Semitism. Jews of Conscience who view the issue of Palestinian freedom as a Jewish obligation to work for justice have been frozen out of the dialogue. The interfaith dialogue has thus become a deal: Christians repent for the sins of anti-Semitism and remain silent on Jewish complicity in the suffering of Palestinians.
Unfortunately, however, the Pope’s sense of history and confession remained mostly – and safely – in the past. He addressed the present-day quagmire of the Jewish communities around the world in relation to Israel and the Palestinians in only one coded reference:
Along with theological issues, we must not lose sight of the big challenges facing the world today. That of an integral ecology is now a priority, and us Christians and Jews can and must offer humanity the message of the Bible regarding the care of creation. Conflicts, wars, violence and injustices open deep wounds in humanity and call us to strengthen a commitment for peace and justice. Violence by man against man is in contradiction with any religion worthy of that name, and in particular with the three great monotheistic religions. Life is sacred, a gift of God. The fifth commandment of the Decalogue says: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). God is the God of life, and always wants to promote and defend it; and we, created in his image and likeness, are called upon to do the same. Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother, regardless of his or her origin or religious affiliation. Each person must be viewed with favour, just as God does, who offers his merciful hand to all, regardless of their faith and of their belonging, and who cares for those who most need him: the poor, the sick, the marginalized , the helpless. Where life is in danger, we are called even more to protect it. Neither violence nor death will have the last word before God, the God of love and life. We must pray with insistence to help us put into practice the logic of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of life, in Europe, in the Holy Land, in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Though this reference to Israel-Palestine as the Holy Land raised ire among some Jews, for Jews of Conscience the Pope missed an opportunity to move the Jewish-Catholic friendship to a new level of honesty. The irony is telling. As the Pope correctly apologized for the Church’s role in the ghettoization of Jews, he remained silent about the ongoing ghettoization of Palestinians in Israel-Palestine. Putting into practice the “logic of peace, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of life,” as a spiritual value common to Jews and Christians, means more than veiled references to the devastating policies of Israel against Palestinians. A true and lasting friendship at times demands truth-telling. Is the Jewish-Catholic relationship so fragile that the Pope has to enforce his own silence?
As confession and warm wishes are extended all around, the revolutionary fraternity of Jews and Catholics has entered a dance of silences that mask another crime being committed, this time by Israel with the support of Jewish establishments around the world. Instead of one veiled reference to Jewish complicity in injustice, the Pope should have stood firm. It is possible, indeed it is necessary, to condemn the history of anti-Semitism and the ongoing history of the destruction of Palestine.
Do true friends of the Jewish people allow Jews to create a history too similar to the one that the Pope, as his predecessors, must continually apologize for?
In Rome, Pope Francis missed an opportunity to speak the truth about Israel-Palestine and to demonstrate a deeper friendship with the Jewish people. After all, true friendship isn’t about skipping over the hard parts.