It was moments before the service at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, held to elevate 22 new cardinals. The irrepressible archbishop of New York, Timothy Michael Dolan, eschewed Catholic solemnity, and suddenly reached over the low security barrier to demonstrably embrace a kippah-wearing, name-tagged (with title) rabbi.
That hug at St. Peter’s in view of thousands of Catholics from all over the world was a powerful visual that today’s Catholic Church, a half-century after the Second Vatican Council and its revolutionary Nostra Aetate, is a different church.
The irony is profound. A mile from St. Peter’s, one can find the remains of the Jewish ghetto in the city that encircles Vatican City, Rome. A product of the Counter-Reformation and virulent medieval anti-Judaism, the ghetto was created by a papal bull in 1555 and lasted three centuries. Thousands of Jews were crowded into seven acres of densely-populated squalor, worsened by the flooding Tiber River. They were subjected by the Church to limitations on their movement in and out of the walled compound on their way to restricted occupations. They were humiliated by having to wear yellow scarves and hats to identify them as Jews. Representative members of the Jewish community were required to attend church services on Shabbat and hear sermons that articulated the evil of Jewish obstinacy.
Roman Jewry was liberated from its entrapment by the 1870 Italian unification which usurped the church’s political power and granted Jews full rights and citizenship. The proud Roman Jewish community, which traces its presence in the city to the second century BCE, wasted no time in rebuilding the potent symbol of their presence, the 1904 “Synagogue of Emancipation,” today known as the Great Synagogue. It was the first synagogue visited by a pope, John Paul II in 1986, a pilgrimage replicated by Benedict XVI in 2010.
Yet these historic papal gestures, regrettably, came only after the Shoah and the inevitable deportation of Roman Jewry on Oct. 16, 1943, from the square next to their beloved synagogue. The church’s self-reflection ultimately yielded Nostra Aetate, which rejected the deicide charge and condemned anti-Semitism. It was followed by numerous papal teachings, bishops’ guidelines, and symbolic acts that collectively reinvented Catholic-Jewish relations.
Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan is an heir to this legacy of change. This leader of American Catholicism, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has followed the examples of John Paul and Benedict by translating into action the teachings of Nostra Aetate, opening his residence to the Jewish community, accepting numerous Jewish communal invitations and vigorously articulating the meaning of Catholic-Jewish fraternity. This past Monday, he hosted the Jewish community, so that Jewish leadership could participate in the New York celebrations of his elevation, in lieu of the primary festivities at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which were held on Shabbat.
Catholic-Jewish relations today are not perfect. Contentious new and lingering issues remain, but the trajectory has been moving in the right direction for decades. Disagreements are discussed among friends, between equals. Centuries of suspicion, hostility, and violence cannot be reversed in two generations, but a fair-minded analysis should attest to a sea change in the relationship.
I went to Rome to fulfill the mitzvah of hakarat ha-tov, recognition of a Catholic Church that has changed and a new cardinal who embodies that change. The gesture was warmly received, not only by the new cardinal, but also by the hundreds of American Catholics who joined him in Rome and the many others who witnessed the mutuality.
Welcome home Your Eminence, Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, to your adopted city, home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel. May God bless you. And, by the way, mazal tov.
Rabbi Noam E. Marans, a resident of Teaneck, is the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations.