Pope holds historic meeting with European rabbis

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Pope Francis leads prayer overlooking Saint Peter's Square October 26, 2014. | (FILE) REUTERS/Max Rossi

ROME (Christian Examiner) – For the first time in history, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the Conference of European Rabbis.

The meeting, which took place in the Vatican April 20, addressed the rise of anti-Semitism and secularism in Europe.

"Acts of hatred and violence against Christians and the faithful of other religions must likewise be condemned everywhere," Pope Francis told the gathering, according to an article on the news site Breitbart.com. All Christians "must be firm in deploring all forms of anti-Semitism, and in showing their solidarity with the Jewish people."

Even as other news reports noted the war crimes trial this week of Auschwitz accountant Oskar Groening, now 93, the pontiff referred to the recent 70th anniversary of the liberation of that notorious concentration camp in Poland where about 1.5 million – all but 150,000 were Jews – died. "The memory of what took place there, in the heart of Europe, is a warning to present and future generations," he proclaimed.

The meeting of the pope and European rabbis took place one day after the death of Elio Toaff, 99, on Sunday, April 19.

Toaff, spiritual leader of Italian Jews, was known for his work forging more amicable relations between Jews and the Vatican. He is perhaps best known for the invitation he extended to Pope John Paul II to pray with him in Rome's central synagogue. The pope accepted on April 13, 1986, more than two decades after the Second Vatican Council in 1965 produced a document – Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) – rejecting the proposition that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. That document started the healing of a 2,000-year rift between the two faiths.

The visit by Pope John Paul II built on that.

"I see the visit of the pope as the crowning achievement of the church's policy over the last 20 years," Taoff told The New York Times in an interview that took place before the pope's visit.

Pope Francis said Monday's gathering was carrying on the work of Toaff and John Paul II, and he stressed the common spiritual bond between Jews and Catholics.

Europe is "increasingly marked by secularism and threatened by atheism," and "we run the risk of living as if God did not exist," Francis told the rabbis.

"People are often tempted to take the place of God, to consider themselves the criterion of all things, to control them, to ues everything according to their own will," the pope continued, Breitbart reported. "It is so important to remember, however, that our life is a gift from God, and that we must depend on Him, confide in Him, and turn towards Him always."

The dialogue between the Catholic church and the Jewish community has progressed "in a systematic way" over the last 50 years, the pontiff said while appealing for a common Judeo-Christian witness "to the sanctity of God and human life."