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Synagogue in Rome, Italy. Rabbi Rose at left end, Father Sam facing out, third from right

The Pope


By Simone Cohen Scott, written January 11, 2012, posted here April 5, 2010

Today I had an audience with the Pope. Well, not only me; a group of us were on the Interfaith Journey to Rome and Israel with Rabbi Rose and Father Sam. Well, not only us; the hall’s capacity is around nine thousand and it was packed. We arrived in Rome yesterday and I have lots to tell you about, but for overall spiritual impact this Catholic experience, a day after arriving in Rome and saying Kaddish at the site of Europe’s oldest synagogue, takes precedence.

Not surprisingly, our group consisted of fewer Jews than Catholics. This seemed to me a positive thing. If Catholics are interested in learning about the Jewish matrix of their own religion, it’s a giant step toward mutual understanding. And I found, through conversation with the others, what I like to call a ‘pintele yid’ in many of them,---a parent or grandparent of Jewish background if not upbringing, or an inexplicable burning desire to seek out and study Jewish stuff. 

This evening, over a wonderful dinner of Mediterranean sea bass, (yesterday it was kosher lamb at ‘The Little Tavern in the Ghetto’; no kidding), some of us shared with each other our impressions of the papal audience. Actually, it was a very moving experience. Aspects of the event, which took most of the morning, were unique to the particular day we attended. For instance, while we waited for the Pope to appear, a very l-o-o-o-ng wait, a completely unscheduled group of sprightly entertainers, clowns, jugglers, acrobats, decked out in shiny, jewel-coloured costumes, surprised everyone, and their doings were projected on the large screen for us all to enjoy. Such excitement, reminding me of our Festival of Purim.

The Pope spoke in several languages; his English is very cultured, his voice comforting. He looks every inch what he is---dignified—regal—wise. (Full head of white hair; that’s even biblical.) If I were designing his image I wouldn’t change a thing. Groups from all over the world were greeted by name, and they cheered and waved flags; we were the ‘Interfaith Pilgrimage from Canada’. I wished we had had a theme song, as the other groups all seemed to have, which they sang beautifully for him when they were introduced. The vibes of FAITH, writ large, that filled Nervi Hall (named after the architect) was palpable. Prayers followed, then more entertainment, now perhaps less Purim-like and more Cirque de Soleil, after which the Pope left, to chants of ‘Papa, Papa!’

I was sure the event would take place at St. Peter’s Basilica but I was wrong. We approached that edifice, but then veered off and traipsed somehow around the back, into the lovely Nervi auditorium. That was the only modern building we got anywhere near. Later in the day we went to Titus’ Arch, the ‘carved-in-stone’ documentation of the destruction of our Second Temple and the capturing of its’ solid gold artifacts. The spoils from that watershed event in our history, as we know, were used to construct the Flavian Amphitheatre, or what we call the Coliseum. I was delighted to see that this important Jewish history is finally documented right here at the site, for centuries the basic truth was ignored, so to finally have it illuminated is a plus. Over time, the beautiful materials with which the Coliseum was built have been pilfered away (‘quarried’ is the word our guide used), including all the metal reinforcements, leaving only a skeleton of the magnificent structure still standing.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: My son, who is a serious comics collector, gave me a list of items to try to find which are only available in Italy, if at all. This required I venture out in the late afternoon/early evening, (meaning after dark) off the beaten tourist track. It turned out to be fun; I’m here to tell you that Rome is an absolutely beautiful, charming, welcoming city, full of sweet, stylish people, and G-d willing, I’m coming back again.

As per our agenda we rounded off the Rome portion with a visit to the site of the former Rome Ghetto, to the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum), and to a couple of the eighteen traditional synagogues entirely supported by the Jewish community of Rome, each a blend of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Roman Jews (i.e. descendants of the Jews who moved to Rome during the Temple period). I was astonished to learn that the Jewish population of Rome is roughly the same size as that of Winnipeg. Eighteen shuls, can you imagine? Ah well, next week in Jeruslaem!


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