Rabbi Credits Pope With New Era in Jewish-Catholic Relations

Rome's Riccardo di Segni Assesses John Paul II's Pontificate

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ROME, OCT. 31, 2003 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II's pontificate has opened a new era in relations between Catholics and Jews, the chief rabbi of Rome says.



Born in 1949, married and father of three, and a radiologist at Rome's St. John Hospital, Riccardo di Segni became chief rabbi last year, replacing Elio Toaff, who held the office for 50 years.

"There has been no Pope in history who has fostered such good relations between Judaism and the Catholic Church as John Paul II," Rabbi di Segni told ZENIT at the conclusion of the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of this pontificate. "From our point of view, we are before situations which are uncommon in the history of the Church and of its relations with the Jewish community."

Q: In what way has John Paul II changed relations with Judaism?

Rabbi Segni: In history, there have been different problems in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially prejudices in regard to Jews. For centuries we have had the perception that it was a distrust nourished by ideologies and old practices. This type of approach to Jewish differences has been dismantled by a series of actions of John Paul II even more than his speeches.

I am referring, in particular, to the Pope's visit to the Synagogue of Rome and his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

John Paul II has removed the attitudes of contempt and has established a relationship based on respect and reciprocal dignity.

Q: There are many shared values between Jews and Christians.

Rabbi Segni: It stems from the fact that these two religions have their origin in the Bible. Biblical tradition underlines the importance of the dignity and of the life of man, the sense that life must have an ideal, the sense of social solidarity. These are fundamental values -- biblical values that are intrinsic and shared between Jews and Christians.

From this point of view, the two worlds have always come together and even imitated one another, often in a virtuous circle.

Q: What is your assessment of John Paul II's pontificate?

Rabbi Segni: It is positive, although problematic aspects of a theological order remain. With this pontificate we have certainly arrived at a full respect of human dignity and of religious traditions, but on many other questions the discussion is still open.

Q: What value do you attribute to this pontificate?

Rabbi Segni: John Paul II was able to give a great positive picture of his work and of what the Church does. I do not know to what extent the faithful accept his exhortations with a sufficient sense of responsibility.

Q: What do you mean?

Rabbi Segni: The majority of people have a boundless admiration for this Pope, who has great personal impact -- a media impact, insofar as he has had to endure suffering; the ability he has to attract hundreds of millions of people around his initiatives.

But I don't know how much this can change people's behavior. I don't know, for example, how many people share his opposition to divorce, or his opposition to certain forms of sexual behavior as indicated by Catholic morality.

Q: Defense of life, opposition to euthanasia, defense of the dignity of the person and of human rights, are issues that are dear to you.

Rabbi Segni: Regarding opposition to euthanasia, our position is similar to that of the Catholic Church. But we have different positions in regard to what Catholics understand as defense of life. Not because we do not defend unborn life, but because according to Jewish theology, the beginning of life is juridically regulated with criteria that are different from those proclaimed by the Catholic Church, with all due respect for what the Church affirms. Therefore, the doctrinal positions are not always identical.

We have the highest respect as regards human rights and the rights of the person.