What does the Pope’s synagogue visit mean for Jews and Christians?

Pope Francis’s visit to a synagogue in Rome comes amid questions about the shifting status of Jewish-Catholic relations.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Pope Francis (L) and chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni (C) stand during his visit at Rome's Great Synagogue in Italy Sunday.

Pope Francis visited the Great Synagogue of Rome Sunday, becoming only the third Catholic leader in modern times to visit the Jewish house of prayer.

Francis spoke at the synagogue in an effort to demonstrate interfaith solidarity in the wake of recent religiously motivated violence around the world, and to condemn anti-Semitism. The Pope’s remarks were met with a generally positive response, according to the Associated Press.

"The hatred that comes from racism and bias or worse which uses God's name or words to kill deserves our contempt and our firm condemnation," said Ruth Dureghello, president of the Rome's Jewish community, according to the AP.

Francis’s visit followed previous Great Synagogue papal appearances by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, both made in times of strained relations between the two religions.

Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, hosted Francis’s visit and was also present when Benedict attended. Before the Sunday event, Rabbi Di Segni expressed hope that the visit could accentuate the friendship between Jews and Christians while also criticizing recent moves by the Vatican, saying they "cannot be so appreciated by the Jewish community."

While relations between Jews and Catholics are relatively calm now, some believe the Vatican has not acknowledged Israel properly while giving Palestine recognition.

In 2015, the Catholic Church signed a treaty recognizing a “State of Palestine.” And Francis had previously visited the West Bank prior to Israel when traveling through the region, as well as possibly having likened Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to an “angel of peace.”

Despite these tensions, the Vatican released an update on the status of Catholic-Jewish relations last month, 50 years after the Church’s first declaration on relations with non-Christian religions – the Nostra aetate – was published. The December reflection pertained to the “special” dialogue between Jews and Christians and where the Catholic Church hopes to take it.

The release also made new points that the Church should not actively try to convert Jews, and acknowledged that the two religions share a unique historical and theological connection.

"This document is very significant," Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee told the AP.

The Pope’s Sunday visit also included an acknowledgment of Holocaust survivors and Francis’s repetition of John Paul’s assertion that Jews are Christians’ “elder brothers” in the family of God.

But the top Catholic’s main message was the condemnation of recent violence perpetrated by and directed at religious people.

"Violence of man against man is in contradiction to every religion that merits the name, in particular the three monotheistic religions," Francis said, according to the AP.

"Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother regardless of his origins or religious belief,”  he said.

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