IN the first papal visit to a synagogue, Pope John Paul II last weekend made an important gesture of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and Italian and world Jewry. He reaffirmed the finding of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 that Jews are not to be held collectively responsible for the death of Christ Jesus, and that hence ``any alleged theological justification for discriminatory measures or, worse still, for acts of persecution is unfounded.'' He repeated the declaration deploring ``the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews anytime and by anyone.'' And he recognized -- in the interfaith spirit of Vatican II from which critics had feared that the current church was retreating -- the independent identity of the Jewish religion ``beyond any syncretism and any ambiguous appropriation.'' Whatever helps to affirm the dignity and identity of peoples and their religions must be welcomed -- the more so the longer it is in coming and in the light of needless tragic hardships and sufferings.
In Rome, it had been an earlier Pope, Paul IV, who had issued an edict in 1555 confining Rome's Jews, Europe's oldest Jewish community, to a ghetto for more than three centuries. Add to this Pope John Paul II's own origins in Poland, site of most of World War II's Holocaust atrocities, and Sunday's meeting with Rabbi Elio Toaff at the central synagogue on the Tiber River takes on historic and human significance in Jewish-Roman Catholic ties.
Discrimination requires ongoing vigilance. In America, where Jews, especially since World War II, have found particular haven, there remains concern over fundamentalist Christian efforts to promote a ``Christian America'' doctrine. Given such exclusivist tendencies in quite different cultures and traditions, it is important to embrace the distinctness and fraternity of the several Christian, Jewish, and other religious traditions.