Pope Francis visited Rome's synagogue this afternoon stressing that the Church recognises God’s “irrevocable” covenant with Israel and the unique relationship between Christians and Jews.
Francis became the third Pope to visit the city's synagogue following John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010.
In his address to the gathering, the Pope said that Jewish-Catholic dialogue was “close to my heart” and called for Jews and Catholics to collaborate in furthering peace, justice and protecting the environment.
During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis developed close relations with the Jewish community including a friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka - a series of discussions between the pair was later turned into a book.
This afternoon the Pope said that the Second Vatican Council said "no" to all forms of anti-semitism and that that the Church “recognises the irrevocability of the covenant and God's constant and faithful love for Israel.” He added: "it is clear there is an inseparable bond between Christians and Jews."
Church dialogue with Jews has radically changed over the last 50 years following Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate which condemned all forms of anti-semitism. "From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers," the Pope said when speaking of the last half century adding that "mutual understanding, mutual trust and friendship have grown and deepened."
However, a key point of Jewish-Catholic relations concerns whether God’s covenant with the Jews is still valid and if Jews need to convert to Christianity. John Paul II said the covenant had “never been revoked” and at the synagogue today Pope Francis referred to an "important" document released last month by the Vatican on Catholic-Jewish relations which said the Church had no “institutional mission” to Jews.
That text, titled “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable”, explained: “From the Christian confession that there can only be one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.”
But tensions in this area remain with the Good Friday prayer in the Old Rite of the Mass which calls for Jews to “recognise Christ as their saviour.” The Jewish community remains unhappy with this prayer while the former Archbishop of Southwark, Kevin McDonald, and an inter-religious dialogue expert, has lobbied the Vatican to re-write the prayer.
During his visit to the synagogue the Pope met with survivors of the Holocaust along with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and Ruth Dureghello, the first female President of the Jewish Community of Rome.
On the Holocaust victims and survivors the Pope said: "the Jewish people has had to experience violence and persecution, to the point of extermination of European Jews during the Holocaust. Six million people, just because they belonged to the Jewish people, were victims of the most inhumane barbarity perpetrated in the name of an ideology that wanted to replace God with man. On October 16, 1943, over a thousand men, women and children Rome’s Jewish community were deported to Auschwitz."
He went on: "I wish to remember them in a special way: their suffering, their fear, their tears must never be forgotten. And the past must serve as a lesson for the present and for the future. The Holocaust teaches us that utmost vigilance is always needed to be able to take prompt action in defence of human dignity and peace. I would like to express my closeness to every witness of the Holocaust who is still living; and I address a special greeting to those who are present here today."