A visit by Pope Francis to the Great Synagogue of Rome on Sunday, his first and the third overall by popes, was rich in both symbolism and substance. It offered clear reminders of the dramatic progress in Catholic/Jewish relations over the past 50 years, but also of the tensions that remain.
While expressing deep admiration for Francis and his lifetime commitment to friendship with Jews, leaders of Rome’s Jewish community also laid down an unmistakable challenge to the pontiff to be more outspoken in defense of Israel and against radical Islamic terrorism — not just in Europe, but also in the Jewish homeland.
In terms of the big picture about where things stand today between Jews and Christians, however, a small moment at the beginning seemed to tell the tale best.
When Francis got out of the car that carried him the roughly two miles from the Vatican to the Great Synagogue, his first order of business was to greet a handful of living survivors of the Holocaust and also relatives of a two-year-old boy who was killed during a 1982 assault on the synagogue by Palestinian terrorists.
Those episodes are no laughing matter, and Francis appeared somber and restrained as he began shaking hands. That lasted until he saw an elderly man named Nereo Musante, wearing a fedora and sporting a long beard, who was gazing at the pontiff with an infectious smile.
Nereo Musante greeted Pope Francis outside Rome’s Great Synagogue. (Photo by Papaboys)
Francis lit up and made a beeline for Musante, wrapping his outstretched hand in both of his own and engaging in a brief chat. Nearby microphones picked up most of the exchange.
“Listen, Holy Father, how about putting the [feast of] the circumcision back on the calendar?” Musante said, causing others standing nearby to laugh that he would use the occasion to give the pope unsolicited advice.
“It would be a beautiful thing to do, wouldn’t it?” he persisted.
Francis didn’t directly respond to the suggestion, but his body language indicated he certainly didn’t take any offense.
As Francis was about to pull away to greet someone else, the still-beaming Musante then said: “Anyway, you’re a very nice person … we love you a lot!”
What Musante was referring to is an old Catholic feast based on the Biblical story that on the eighth day after his birth, in keeping with Jewish law, the newborn Christ child was circumcised and presented with his name, “Jesus.”
Undoubtedly, Musante sees the account from the Gospel of Luke as a clear confirmation of the Jewish roots of Jesus, and thus of Christianity itself.
From the 13th and 14th centuries, the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord was celebrated on Jan. 1 and was considered a holy day of obligation, when Catholics are required to attend Mass. After the Second Vatican Council, however, Jan. 1 was designated as a feast of Mary, Mother of God, returning to an ancient practice, and the Feast of the Circumcision was more or less forgotten.
Musante, now 95, would know all that because he was born Catholic in the Italian city of Livorno, and came of age in the Catholic Church before Vatican II in the mid-1960s, when the Feast of the Circumcision was a major annual event.
Somewhere along the line, Musante developed an attraction to Judaism and wanted to embrace the faith. During the 1970s and early 80s, after he moved to Rome, he presented himself at the Great Synagogue several times hoping to convert, but was sent away.
Musante wouldn’t give up, which is how he came to be at the synagogue on the day when the 1982 attack occurred, and he was injured himself. Afterwards, then-Chief Rabbi Elio Toaf agreed to accept him into Judaism, and he’s gone on to become a pillar of Rome’s Jewish community, which is why he was on hand to greet Francis on Sunday.
In many ways, Musante exudes the typical zeal of the convert, feeling more protective of Judaism, and the Roman Jewish community, than even some of those born into it. As a result, he just couldn’t resist using the pope’s visit to prod Francis to take one more step down the path of acknowledging the Jewish origins of the Church.
Yet at the same time, Musante also couldn’t help telling Francis what a great guy he is and how much local Jews love him.
For those who know Catholic/Jewish dialogue, that pretty much sums up where things are today.
Yes, there are tensions and disputes between the two faiths, which can get intense. Yet fundamentally, this has become a deep and abiding friendship, and as Rome’s chief rabbi told Francis on Sunday, “there’s no going back.”
In other words, the relationship is now something akin to a marriage — there are always going to be squabbles, but both partners are committed to making it work.
For centuries, Jews resented the way that Catholics would often demand they convert from Judaism to Christianity. Perhaps it’s fitting that the person who seemed to sum up the current state of the relationship best on Sunday was also a convert, but one whose journey took him in precisely the opposite direction.