• History
  • faith

What Happened the First Time a Pope Visited a Synagogue

2 minute read

Exactly 30 years ago, on Apr. 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II became “the first known Pope to enter a Jewish house of worship since St. Peter,” as TIME put it the following year.

While the two miles between the Vatican and Rome’s Great Synagogue don’t make for a terribly long journey, the significance of the Pope’s visit far outpaced the physical distance. The Catholic Church’s history had long made such a visit unthinkable. “For centuries the Jews of Rome, under papal rule,” TIME noted the week after the visit, “had suffered discrimination and humiliation, were confined to a ghetto and were forced to attend sermons urging them to convert. An ironic proverb expressed their feelings of hopelessness: ‘The persecution will end when the Pope enters the synagogue.'”

Enter he did—though in fact the official persecution had ended a century before, when the Papal States became part of Italy in 1870—and joined the synagogue’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff “in an enthusiastic embrace” as some of the 1,000 onlookers wept.

The the trip was initiated by a personal request from the Pope, who criticized the church’s past treatment of Jews, saying that “the acts of discrimination, unjustified limitation of religion freedom, oppression also on the level of civil freedom in regard to the Jews were, from an objective point of view, gravely deplorable manifestations.” He emphasized that the church “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone” and expressed his “abhorrence” at what had happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Both Israel’s President Chaim Herzog and Rabbi Toaff saw the Pope’s visit as a positive sign for the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jewish community. President Herzog, TIME wrote, saw it as an important step toward “the correcting of the injustice which the church perpetrated on the Jewish people during 1,500 years” and Rabbi Toaff termed it “a turning point in the history of the church” which at last “puts the two religions on a level of equality.”

Read more about Pope John Paul II’s historic visit, here in the TIME Vault: Mutual Declarations of Respect

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com