RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It has been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council released its most radical document, which said the church would no longer propagate the idea that non-Catholics were cursed. Vatican II specifically rejected anti-Semitism and the charge that Jews were guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: We're in one of Rome's trendiest neighborhoods. Chic cafes line a pedestrian area, and people stroll by an ancient Roman portico. Restaurant waiters assure tourists their fried artichokes are the best in town. But this was once Rome's most shameful neighborhood, a flood-prone area of four cramped blocks where for more than three centuries Jews were confined by ruling popes. It's still called the Ghetto.
GEORGES DE CANINO: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: I breathe history here, says painter Georges de Canino. I touch it. There's layers and layers of it under the cobblestones. Memories of past suffering are still vivid as he points to a church at the end of the street.
DE CANINO: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: That's where on Saturdays friars preached sermons Jews were forced to hear. If they put wax in their ears, they were beaten. Look there, he points, a church with an inscription in Latin and Hebrew about stubborn Jews. And there's another at the other end. Says De Canino, the ghetto was encircled by churches, a sign of Catholics' obsession to get us to convert. This Jewish community is the oldest outside Israel. Jews settled here before Christianity. Their history is illustrated in the Synagogue Museum. Tour guide Ursula Dattilo says Jews lived relatively well in antiquity.
URSULA DATTILO: Trouble starts in 1215, when a pope decides that the Jews have to be recognized by their way of dressing. It's a special hat for the man with a cone in the middle and a scarf with blue stripes for the women.
POGGIOLI: With the counterreformation, the church cracked down further. In 1555, Pope Paul IV locked Roman Jews in the ghetto. It wasn't torn down until 1870, when Rome was liberated from papal power. It was a hundred years later that the church reassessed its relations with Jews. When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to bring the church into the modern world, he wanted an end to centuries of what had been called teaching of contempt about Jews. There was much obstruction. Some bishops even handed out anti-Jewish leaflets in St. Peter's Square. But in 1965, the Vatican II document "Nostra Aetate," "In Our Times," was issued. In a Skype conversation from Jerusalem, Rabbi David Rosen, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, says it was truly a revolution every document.
DAVID ROSEN: That took us from a situation of where the Jewish people had been seen as cursed and rejected by God and even in league with the devil to a situation of now, where the covenant between God and the Jewish people is an eternal covenant never broken.
POGGIOLI: It was the first time the Catholic Church acknowledged that Jesus is the link between Christianity and Judaism, says church historian Massimo Faggioli.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: In this document, the Catholic Church accepted the idea that Christians don't own Jesus. That is theologically revolutionary because in the Catholic mindset, Jesus was a Catholic.
POGGIOLI: "Nostra Aetate" recognized there are positive elements in other religions, says the National Catholic Reporter senior analyst Father Thomas Reese, and that through interreligious dialogue, stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome.
THOMAS REESE: For us, religious freedom now is a matter of church teaching. We have to observe it. We have to respect it, whereas before Vatican II, we were not really very respectful of religious freedom.
POGGIOLI: Sitting at a noisy cafe in the Ghetto, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, American Jewish Committee liaison with the Holy See, remembers that at first, dialogue wasn't easy.
LISA PALMIERI-BILLIG: There was so much diffidence on both sides. On one side, the Christians said, how come you Jews don't recognize Jesus with all the miracles that he made? And the Jews say, all you want to do is convert us. But gradually, it opened up.
POGGIOLI: While there've been some misunderstandings, great strides have been made in Jewish Catholic ties. Celebrating the 50th anniversary, Pope Francis said, from indifference and opposition, we've turned to cooperation and goodwill; from enemies and strangers, we've become friends and brothers. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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