In a surprise twist being described as a message from beyond the grave, Pope John Paul II mentioned the “rabbi of Rome” in his will — one of only two living people to be singled out.
Elio Toaff, the former chief rabbi of Rome referred to in the will, said his inclusion should be taken as a signal to future popes to continue John Paul’s historic efforts to improve Jewish-Catholic relations.
“Pope Wojtyla wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries,” Toaff told the Italian daily la Repubblica, referring to the late Polish Pope by his family name, Karol Wojtyla. “It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews. But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world.”
Toaff hosted John Paul when he made his historic visit in 1986 to the Great Synagogue of Rome. It marked the first time that a pope had ever visited a Jewish house of worship.
In his will, the pope reportedly declared, “How can I fail to remember the rabbi of Rome, and the numerous representatives of non-Christian religions?” The only other living person to be named in the will was John Paul’s longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.
In addition to listing Toaff, John Paul also made reference in his will to the church reforms adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, describing them as “great gifts” and calling on them to be continued, according to media reports. The reforms included Nostra Aetate, the Vatican declaration that condemned antisemitism, called for “mutual respect and understanding” between Jews and Catholics, and renounced the accusation that all Jews for all time are guilty of killing Jesus.
The pope, who was buried last week under St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, stated in his will that he was “convinced” that “it will be given to the new generation to draw on the richness that this council of the 20th century has granted us.”
The endorsement of the 1965 reforms, and the mention of Rome’s rabbi, come as some observers fear that conservative trends at the Vatican would eventually weaken several of the steps taken by John Paul.
But Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, said he believed that the inclusion of a rabbi in a pope’s will was a historical first and a development that has religious significance for Catholics.
Cunningham argued that the will has “ecclesiological import for future popes.”
“In a way,” he added, “the work of developing affirming theologies and positive relations with Judaism helps Catholics in fostering similar attitudes of respect toward other religions. I think that this line in John Paul’s last testament expresses his determination that such work continue after his death.”
Toaff told Italian newspapers that he was surprised to have been mentioned in the will.
“It is a very important, moving fact that I did not expect,” Toaff told la Repubblica. The pope also named his mentor, late Polish cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.
The pope’s will said that he left no material property and that he requested all his personal notes be burned.
Toaff, who attended the pope’s funeral, said he hoped the next pope would uphold John Paul’s legacy and “do even better.”
“But it is unlikely that there will be someone else like him,” the rabbi said. “Even if we are optimistic, I see many difficulties in finding a successor of his stature.”
Visiting the Rome synagogue was perhaps the pope’s most significant gesture of all his historic Jewish initiatives, because it publicly signaled the end of the Catholic concept that [Catholicism] had superseded Judaism, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
During his 1986 visit to the synagogue, the pope declared, “The Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.” He described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians and advocated moving beyond “a mere ‘coexistence.’”
When the pope decided to visit the Rome synagogue, he opened a back channel to Toaff through a storied Italian Jewish family, the Lamontinis, to avoid putting the rabbi in an uncomfortable position, according to Foxman. On getting the pope’s message, Toaff polled the chief rabbis of Europe, who approved of the visit that took place soon thereafter.
“What it shows is the sensitivity of this pope” to the sensibilities of the Jewish community, Foxman said.
But the importance of the pope’s connection to Toaff and to the synagogue transcends Jewish-Catholic relations, Cunningham said.
“In a way, the work of developing affirming theologies and positive relations with Judaism helps Catholics in fostering similar attitudes of respect toward other religions. “I think that this line in John Paul’s last testament expresses his determination that such work continue after his death.”
This story "Roman Rabbi Mentioned in Pope’s Will" was written by Eric J. Greenberg.