ROME (EJP)---On the occasion of his much anticipated historic visit to Rome’s Synagogue on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed by Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chairman of the Rome Jewish Community Riccardo Pacific and by Renzo Gattegna, chairman of UCEI, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
Upon his arrival to the area of the former Jewish ghetto, the pope laid a wreath of flowers in front of the marble plaque commemorating 1.022 deported Jews abducted by the Nazis from the ghetto on 16 October, 1943 and send to the death camps.
He then greeted Rome’s former Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, the man who welcomed Pope John Paul II in his historic visit to the Synagogue on 13 April 1986.
Before entering the synagogue, Benedict XVI saluted Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and the relatives of Stefano Taichè, the 8-year-old Jewish boy killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in front of the synagogue on 6 October, 1982.
"The silence of pope Pius XII on the Shoah still hurts as an undelivered gesture," said Riccardo Pacifici in his speech.
"A sign from the pope might not have stopped the trains of death, but it would have sent a signal, a word of consolation and human solidarity towards our brothers transported to the chimneys of Auschwitz."
This is the most direct criticism pronounced by the chairman of Rome’s Jewish community to the Catholic Church, in a speech in which he also remembered that his father and his uncle were spared from Nazi deportation only thanks to the protection received by the nuns of the Santa Marta convent in Florence.
Pacifici expressed the Jewish community’s solidarity towards all the Christian communities "suffering from so many persecutions in Asia and Africa nowadays."
Pacifici also said in the name of the Jewish communities:"“While we wait for a shared historical judgement, I hope that historians will be granted access to the Vatican archives regarding that period."
Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni remembered the centuries of anti-Jewish Catholic persecutions in Rome, "while we are meeting today on a basis of equality."
"If our relationship is a pathway of brotherhood," said the rabbi recalling a number of Biblical episodes regarding brothers, "we should sincerely ask ourselves how far we are from authentic brotherhood and comprehension of one another, and what we should do to get there."
Regarding the controversial role of Pius XII during WWII, the rabbi said: "the silence of God before a tragedy is impenetrable, but man’s silence haunts us."
Di Segni mentioned the protection of the environment as an example for future cooperation, "the same way Adam was asked to care for and protect the Garden of Eden."
He then concluded: "All the faiths acknowledging Abraham’s heritage must be lived without aggressiveness nor political hatred."
In his address, the Pope said that his visit follows the path inaugurated by his predecessor “who meant to give a heavy contribution to the strengthening of our relations with the Jewish community, in order to overcome any incomprehension and prejudice.
"I, too intends to show my affection and closeness to the People of the Alliance, and the joy of my trip to the Holy Land is still alive within me."
He said that "the Church has begged for forgiveness for anything it may have done to favour the evils of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. May these wounds be healed forever."
He recalled Pope John Paul II’s words: "Oh Lord, we are profoundly grieved for the behaviour of those who, throughout history, caused the suffering of the Jews, your children."
Benedict XVI also mentioned the "unique and upsetting" tragedy of the Shoah. "Many remained indifferent, but many, especially among Italian Catholics, reacted with courage, opening their arms to help the Jews, often risking their own lives. They deserve eternal gratitude," he declared.
In what appeared to be a response to Pacifici’s criticism on Pius XII, the pope said "even the Apostolic See carried out an aiding function, often in a hidden and secret way."
The pope finished his speech by listing the actions that should be at the centre of an interfaith dialogue with Judaism. "Bringing forth the divine word, protecting the environment, and promoting family," he said.
After the end of the visit, Rabbi Di Segni declared that the encounter "contributed to cheer up the atmosphere between the two communities."