Former colleague Charles Paul Freund (pictured) has a good piece over at Reason‘s Hit & Run blog on the various popes’ relations with the Jewish community of Rome. Some of the historical details are cringe-inducing. Pope Paul IV, for instance, established the Jewish ghetto, the miniscule boundaries of which were to house the city’s Jewish population between the 1550s and 1870, when the Vatican lost control of most of the city.
Whenever the Church would mint a new pope, delegates of the local Jewry were expected to meet the papal procession and make a gift of the Pentateuch. According to Freund, “nearly all the new popes received the Roman Jews’ gift of Scripture with the same formula: We affirm the Law, but reject your interpretation of it. Some popes said more and worse, and some are recorded as tossing the gift to the ground.”
Relations with Roman Jews improved through much of the 20th century and hit their high water mark (so far) under John Paul II. When the former pope made his historic visit to a Roman synagogue, Freund reports, “the ancient congregation rose to welcome him by singing the exaltations of Psalm 150. Praise ye the Lord, they sang. Praise him with the timbrel and dance. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.”
Freund looks at the current pope’s involvement in JPII’s visit and highlights some remarkably philo-Semitic statements from Benedict’s inaugural homily. The pontiff greeted “with great affection . . . my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.” Freund opines that, for one brief moment, “it seemed a historical pity that Rome was no longer under papal rule.”