Synagogue visit marks a new step in Catholic-Jewish ties

Aug. 19 ( - When he enters the historic synagogue in Cologne on August 19, Pope Benedict XVI will be the 2nd Pope of modern times to visit a Jewish house of worship. The Pontiff is following closely in the steps of his predecessor, John Paul II, who broke new ground in interfaith relations when he visited the synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986.

The visit by Pope Benedict takes on extra significance because a German-born Pontiff is entering a building nearly completely destroyed by the Nazi regime in the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The building was reconstructed during the 1950s, and now the revitalized Jewish community is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the close of World War II.

Rabbi Netanel Teitlbaum, who will greet the Pontiff on his arrival, has urged reporters to recognize that the 1-hour visit by Benedict XVI is not a political event, but a step forward in relations between Christians and Jews. For the Jewish people of Germany in particular, he said, the repercussions of the papal visit will be "exclusively positive."

Since the start of his pontificate, Benedict XVI has stressed his hope for steady improvement in relations between Christians and Jews. One of his first messages after his election was an April 20 telegram to the Jewish community in Rome, saying that he hoped to continue the dialogue that John Paul II had undertaken. Rabbi Riccardo De Segni of the Roman synagogue welcomed that message as "opportune, important, and significant."

Relations between the Vatican and the world's Jewish people have warmed considerably since October 1960, when Pope John XXIII became the first Pontiff in modern times to meet with Jewish leaders, hosting an audience for representatives of American Jewish organizations. In June of the same year he had created a new Vatican agency, the secretariat for relations with non-Catholics, largely to answer the need for an office promoting dialogue with Jews.

Pope Paul VI, in 1967, created a commission specifically charged with relations with Jews, affiliated with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. But the most important advance during his pontificate with the promulgation of Nostra Aetate the Vatican II document that marked the opening of a new era in relations between the Biblical faiths, with its recognition of the direct spiritual line uniting Christians and Jews in a common religious patrimony. It was Pope John Paul II , however, he made the greatest strides in winning the confidence of Jews: by his visit to Auschwitz in 1978, his unprecedented trip to the synagogue in Rome, and his March 2000 visit to Jerusalem, where he prayed silently at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, and visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.