The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis will soon become the third-ever Roman Pontiff to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome, following in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. “Following the invitation from the Chief Rabbi and Jewish Community of Rome, Pope Francis will pay a visit to the Great Synagogue in the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016,” a Nov. 17 communique from the Vatican read. Known for the great emphasis he places on ecumenism, Francis will follow in the footsteps of two of his predecessors. In 1986 St. John Paul II became the first Pope to visit the synagogue. Benedict XVI imitated the gesture, making a visit of his own in 2010. According to the Vatican communique, the visit will consist of a personal encounter between Pope Francis and representatives of Judaism and the members of the Jewish Community in Rome. Specific details on the encounter, however, will be published “in due course.” Pope Francis is the latest in a string of pontiffs since St. John XXIII who have made Catholic relations with the Jews a priority. St. John XXIII, frequently referred to as “the Good Pope,” is known to have saved thousands of Jewish lives while serving as apostolic nuncio to Turkey during World War II, creating false, though official-looking documents and papers for Jewish refugees seeking to escape into Palestine. He formed a network of other Church officials and neutral politicians whom he enlisted to assist him in his efforts to save and protect the Jewish people. In calling the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII provided the necessary space to re-examine the Church’s relationship with other religions, which culminated in the promulgation of Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christians religions. In an Oct. 28 interview with CNA, Rabbi David Rosen noted that while Bl. Paul VI certainly followed in St. John XXIII’s footsteps in publishing the document, as well as being the first Pope to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Church’s relationship with the Jews made “a quantum leap” during the papacy of St. John Paul II. Rosen is international director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee as well as a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is also part of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews. St. John Paul II has a long track-record of papal-firsts in relation to the Jewish people: in 1979 he was the first Pope to go to Auschwitz and pay homage to the Jewish people who died in the extermination camps; in 1986 he became the first Pope since the first century to enter a synagogue; he was the first Pope to acknowledge the State of Israel in 1993, and was the first Pope who publicly recalled the Holocaust, at the Vatican in 1994. He was also the first Pope to host and honor a long-term Jewish friend in a Pontifical residence. While Benedict XVI continued to build on St. John Paul II’s legacy, Rosen said that “we’ve reached a new height with Pope Francis.” “There’s never been a Pope in history, probably since the first, since Peter, who knew the Jewish community as well as this Pope has done in his own adulthood,” he said, noting how as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio often visited synagogues and Jewish celebrations. So when it comes to Pope Francis, “we’re not dealing with someone who just understands cognitively or even in his heart that this has to be done.” Francis, Rosen said, is somebody who has it “in his innards, as if it were in his intestines (that he) understands the Jewish reality and has engaged with it. And that’s very definitely a new, significant stage in the wonderful transformation of our relationship.”
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