The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, uses sober and specific words to express his expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to the Major Temple on January 17. He is the third Pontiff after John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010 or, better said, the fourth, “recalling that the first Pope to enter a Synagogue was Saint Peter,” he stressed.
In this interview with ZENIT in Rome, the rabbi stressed that the memory of the visits of the previous Popes will be the connecting theme of Pope Francis’ visit this Sunday, which will take on new meaning in a historical and geopolitical context marked by religious violence and fanaticism.
“Hence, it will be a sign against those who today use religion to destroy the world,” said the Rabbi, pointing out some challenges in which Jews and Christians can speak with “once voice, “ – in the first place, about life and human dignity.
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ZENIT: Pope Francis is the third Pope to visit a Synagogue (with the exception of Saint Peter). What expectations and desires do you and the Jewish community of Rome have for this Sunday’s visit?
Rabbi Di Segni: It is an important meeting, even if it is the third. Precisely the fact that he is the third Pope to visit the Synagogue means that there is a continuation of the tradition and the community awaits him with gratitude for this gesture of kindness to us. This shows, in a wider scene than the local, the desire of two religious worlds to establish and consolidate peaceful relations in regard to the negative and mortal examples that come from other religious horizons.
ZENIT: How can we frame this visit of the Pope in a moment so marked by extremism and violence?
Rabbi Di Segni: The sign [of the Pope’s visit] contrasts with those who use religion to destroy the world. We want to use religion to do something good.
ZENIT: Does the visit stem from an invitation you made to the Pontiff?
Rabbi Di Segni: Yes, it was a necessary invitation, formulated immediately to be able to plan it calmly, without urgency. Since his election, we have had a cordial relation with Pope Francis and we have had and have occasion to converse quite frequently, also by telephone. I have always found in him a great willingness to listen.
ZENIT: You also had a good relation with Benedict XVI, for whom you have expressed great esteem on several occasions.
Rabbi Di Segni: Yes, we have a good relationship. We haven’t seen one another since his resignation, but we often send letters to each other.
ZENIT: And with John Paul II? You were present during the visit to the Synagogue of April 16, 1986 – the “historic” visit that was a before and after for the Jewish-Christian dialogue. What memories do you have?
Rabbi Di Segni: Yes, I was present among the public as a spectator struck by what was happening. Time has certainly been necessary to assimilate and understand the breadth of that moment. Afterwards I had the occasion to get to know John Paul II better and to have a direct relation with him. In particular, I approached him when he was already very ill.
ZENIT: Remembering the 1986 visit, if you had to evaluate the last 30 years, what has happened? Has there been a change for better or for worse?
Rabbi Di Segni: I would say there has been progressive improvement, thanks also to the clarification of open questions. Incidents haven’t been lacking, but there has always been a way of addressing and resolving them. When it was possible …
ZENIT: Speaking of the Jubilee, which is an event that has its origin in the Jewish culture, how is the Jewish community of Rome living it?
Rabbi Di Segni: The Jubilee, as it is celebrated, is an absolute and totally Christian event, which we consider with respect and attention.
ZENIT: Last month the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism wrote a document for the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” in which it is affirmed that, “with the necessary reservations,” one can speak of an “intra-religious dialogue” or “intra-familiar” [dialogue] between Christians and Jews. Do you share this expression?
Rabbi Di Segni: The document – which is an extremely important document – represents the point of view of the Christian theological vision. Therefore, the fact that the relation is stressed in particular, which exists between Christianity and Judaism, is important in relation to the previous history. And, therefore, from this point of view, we can say that we are satisfied.
ZENIT: Hence, is this fraternal interpretation of the relation reciprocal?
Rabbi Di Segni: There is no doubt that it’s a relation of fraternity. The theological questions aren’t reciprocal, but different by nature.
ZENIT: In your opinion, what aspects of the dialogue between Jews and Christians must still be reflected upon and developed further?
Rabbi Di Segni: There are many fields of activity, beyond those that are merely theological, which still must be realized: parallel or joint projects on which much work must be done.
ZENIT: Can you be more specific?
Rabbi Di Segni: Yes. We always say we must work together. However, what must we do together?
ZENIT: You tell me …
Rabbi Di Segni: It is an open question on which to reflect. What are the values to present to society? What models? The first thing is that we speak to one another, which is an important sign in the historical moment we are living.
ZENIT: For example, are there current topics on which Christians and Jews can speak with one voice?
Rabbi Di Segni: One voice depends on the topics. Certainly the defense of life and human dignity are essential problems on which we can and must proceed together.
ZENIT: In connection with violence and religious persecution, destructive acts and blasphemous writings against Christians continue to occur in Israel. In your opinion, what are the roots of this growing hatred?
Rabbi Di Segni: In the first place, I reiterate my rejection of these acts, which are isolated and which can’t be justified. They stem from a tragic context and, therefore, are part of a more general uneasiness of the society, which is “poisoned” by a conflict. It’s necessary to work on this.