The US background of John Paul’s synagogue visit


Pope John Paul was welcomed to the Rome synagogue by Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony apparently was partially responsible for Pope John Paul II’s historic 1986 visit to Rome’s main synagogue.

Today’s issue of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, contains a long interview with Cardinal Jorge Mejia, 86, a pioneer in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the retired head of the Vatican Secret Archives and Vatican Library.

When preparations were being made for the pope’s visit to the synagogue, the future cardinal was secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews. The newspaper asked the cardinal how it came about that Pope John Paul was the first modern pope to visit a Jewish synagogue.

Cardinal Mejia

Cardinal Jorge Mejia in 2001 (CNS/Catholic Northwest Progress)

He said that he was invited to one of Pope John Paul’s famous working lunches where the topic was planning for the pope’s 1987 visit to the United States. Cardinal Mejia said he didn’t know why he had been invited.

“Among other things, the pope said that the archbishop of Los Angeles (then-Archbishop Mahony) proposed visiting a synagogue in the city,” he said.

When the pope asked his opinion, “I said that if he was going to visit a synagogue, he should start with the one in Rome, the diocese of the pope,” the cardinal said. “John Paul II asked me if, in my opinion, that was possible.”

Cardinal Mejia said he called Rabbi Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, to ask about the idea and the rabbi responded by quoting Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Pope John Paul visited the synagogue April 13, 1986.

During his Sept. 10-19, 1987, trip to the United States, he met representatives of the U.S. Jewish community at a cultural center in Miami, but not at a synagogue anywhere. In Los Angeles other Jewish leaders were part of a group who participated in an interreligious encounter with the pope at the Japanese Cultural Center.

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