In a wall of the tiny museum at Rome’s majestic central synagogue hangs a copy of the 1555 edict of Pope Paul IV that confined the Jews to the ghetto, branding them as killers of Christ.
The display stands as an permanent reminder of the tortured two-millennia history of Jewish-Catholic relations — an estrangement that only in the past 50 years has begun to heal.
Now the pope is about to visit Israel and plans to stop at Judaism’s holiest place, the Western Wall, and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Benedict XVI is the third pope to visit the Holy Land, but he carries an especially heavy load of historical and psychological baggage.
The steady progress in Jewish-Catholic relations is marred by continuing controversy over whether the Vatican did enough to save Jews from Hitler in World War II. Benedict himself is German, and like many youngsters of the time, served in the Hitler Youth movement. He stirred uproar by his recent reconciliation with a rebel bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
Still, that the 82-year-old pope is making the trip at all is a testament to the ability of Catholics and Jews to overcome the recent disputes. Benedict is recognized in Israel as a friend and supporter of the Jews and can expect a warm welcome when he arrives in Jerusalem on Monday during his weeklong pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“My primary intention is to visit the places made holy by the life of Jesus, and to pray at them for the gift of peace and unity for your families, and all those for whom the Holy Land and the Middle East is home,” Benedict said last week in a message addressed to Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians.
Benedict has already had to tread carefully during the first leg of his Holy Land trip to predominantly Muslim Jordan. Three years ago, the pope angered many in the Muslim world when he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman.”