Visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome

The residents and friends of The Lay Centre outside the Great Synagogue of Rome, after a visit Feb. 18. (Photo: Emil Anton)

The residents and friends of The Lay Centre outside the Great Synagogue of Rome, after a visit to the historic place of worship, Feb. 19. (Photo: Emil Anton)

by Emil Anton

A recent visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome served as an eye-opener to the significant advances in the past five decades in Jewish-Catholic relations.

 
Students residing at The Lay Centre and others studying abroad with the University of St. Thomas met again Feb. 19, this time to visit the Great Synagogue of Rome.
 
Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

St. John Paul II made the first-ever papal visit to the synagogue in 1986. After the historic visit of the Polish pope, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis also visited Rome’s Great Synagogue during their pontificates. Pope Francis went for the first time just last month; the synagogue was packed and the outcome was positive. The Pope impressed the congregation by spending a lot of time greeting the ordinary people.

Unfortunately, the history of Jewish-Catholic relations has not been as positive.

 
The students had an excellent guide, an Italian-Jewish young woman, who explained both the history and the current situation with great passion and expertise. The students were also grateful to Rita Evrony, the Culture and Information Officer from the Embassy of Israel to the Holy See, who organized the visit and joined the students for lunch afterwards at The Lay Centre.
Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

During the Feb. 19 visit of the synagogue, located in Rome’s historic “Jewish Ghetto,” the guide told the students that the popes of the 16th-19th centuries forced the Jews of Rome to live in a small restricted area near the river, which would flood every year.

 
The ghetto was surrounded by churches, where representatives of the Jewish community had to go regularly to listen to Catholic preaching, she said. But the Jews would put wax in their ears and simply pretend they were listening, she said.
The students saw one of these churches; at the entrance was a quote in Hebrew and Latin from the Prophet Isaiah, lamenting the “stubbornness” of the “unbelieving people.”

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photo: Emil Anton)

Most jobs were forbidden to the Jews; so they specialized in money-lending and in textile industry, the guide explained. The men were made to wear a yellow piece of cloth on their hats so that they would be publicly marked as Jewish, she said.

 
This sad history teaches us to understand and to appreciate the Church’s “conversion” in its teachings and in its relation to the Jewish people, expressed during and after the Second Vatican Council. 
 
After lunch, a Catholic and a Jewish student shared their experience of study and dialogue, and there was a possibility for a short discussion on Jewish-Catholic dialogue regarding its advances and challenges.
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