ROME – In a sign that he intends to follow in the steps of his predecessor and reach out to other religions, Pope Benedict XVI (search) has invited the chief rabbi of Rome to his inauguration, a spokesman for Rome's Jewish community said Thursday.
Riccardo Pacifici, said the invitation to Rabbi Riccardo di Segni had "brought with it surprise, pleasure and hope for the future."
But he said the rabbi would not attend the inauguration, which is scheduled for Sunday, the first day of Passover, "obviously not as an act of impoliteness, but to fulfill Jewish practices."
Still, "Let's say that this is a good beginning," Pacifici said.
Neither Di Segni nor Vatican officials were immediately available for comment.
"In announcing to you my election and my solemn inauguration of my Pontificate ... I confide in the help of the Almighty to continue the dialogue and strengthen the collaboration with the sons and daughters of the Jewish people," stated the pope's letter, as cited by the Italian news agency ANSA and confirmed by Pacifici.
Jews widely admired the late Pope John Paul II (search) for his unstinting efforts to promote Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.
John Paul also won many Israeli hearts during a trip to the Holy Land (search) in 2000 by apologizing for Roman Catholic wrongdoing over the centuries. He also was praised for promoting interfaith dialogue, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and aiding Polish Jews during the Nazi era.
John Paul's testament mentioned only two living people: his longtime private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the now retired chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who had welcomed John Paul to the city's synagogue in 1986 in a historic gesture of reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Jews.
As a young man, the new pope served in the Hitler Youth — compulsory for young Germans at the time — and during World War II was drafted into a German anti-aircraft unit, although he says he never fired a shot. Though Benedict has been a leading voice in the church in battling anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish-Catholic relations, his past raised suspicions in Israel.
Benedict's message to the rabbi came in response to di Segni's earlier telegram congratulating the new pope on his election, Pacifici said.
I think that's a wonderful gesture on the pope's part," said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who has served on Vatican-Jewish committees. Bemporad is the director of the New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Understanding and has read several of the pope's books.
"When it comes to Jews I think he's very clear ... on the great importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue," Bemporad said.