Pope Francis Will Visit Rome’s Great Synagogue in January

The Holy Father follows in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Great Synagogue of Rome
Great Synagogue of Rome (photo: Wikipedia/public domain)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis will soon become the third pope 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 communiqué 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 statement, the visit will consist of a meeting between Pope Francis and representatives of Judaism and the members of Rome’s Jewish community.

Specific details 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 Blessed 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 he was the first pope who publicly recalled the Holocaust, 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, “We’ve reached a new height with Pope Francis.”

“There has 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 Jorge 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,” the rabbi said.

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.”

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy