VATICAN CITY — Building on its ties with Israel and its effort to reconcile Roman Catholics and Jews, the Vatican celebrated Hanukkah for the first time Tuesday, lighting a candle in a sheltered garden where popes have strolled for centuries.
"There is much darkness in the world around us. There is much need of light," declared Cardinal Edward Cassidy before lighting the candle on Pope John Paul II's behalf, shielded from a late afternoon drizzle by an aide holding an umbrella.
"It is our hope that these celebrations will bring much joy to the people of Israel, light to those who govern the state and peace to all who live within its borders," the Australian cardinal added.
Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, and this year it officially launches a year of commemorations of Israel's 50th anniversary as a state. Israeli officials said the leaders of 33 nations, including the United States, also heeded their appeal to light Hanukkah candles Tuesday in honor of the anniversary.
In his Hanukkah message, President Clinton offered optimism for prospects in the Middle East and said, "May the candles of the menorah light our way to a true and lasting peace."
The Italian government, in an act of atonement, held its Hanukkah ceremony under Rome's Arch of Titus, built to celebrate the Roman Empire's destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi used the event to urge Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.
But of all the worldwide celebrations, the one here near the brick embattlement that enclosed the Vatican in the 9th century was arguably the most poignant. It was blessed by a pope who has done more than any predecessor to rid his church of anti-Semitism but still faces criticism for not doing enough.
"This is an important chapter in that historic process of reconciliation," Aharon Lopez, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, told a small gathering of dignitaries in the Vatican Gardens.
Hanukkah marks the victory by a small band of Jewish fighters 2,161 years ago over the Greco-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to impose its culture and adorn the Jewish Temple with statues of Greek gods.
According to legend, when the Jews tried to rekindle the temple's eternal flame, they found what they thought was enough oil for just one day. Instead, it lasted eight days. Jews celebrate the legend by lighting one candle on each of eight evenings on a ceremonial candelabra, or menorah, placed on windowsills in their homes.
Cassidy, head of the Vatican commission for relations with Jews, called the battle celebrated at Hanukkah "a victory of principle over compromise, of faith over power, of truth and sound moral living over the dazzling and seductive attractions of a wealthy and mighty empire, of the true God over false imitations of the divinity.
"These are values that Jews and Christians can and should share," he added.
The cardinal lighted a menorah that was borrowed from the Jewish Museum of Rome and set on a table by an olive tree. The tree was first planted in Jerusalem in 1965 to mark a retreat from the historic animosity between Catholics and Jews--the Second Vatican Council's declaration that Jews cannot be held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
In June 1995, the tree was replanted in the Vatican Gardens as a symbol of Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations, established 18 months earlier. Those ties were strengthened last month with an agreement placing Roman Catholic institutions in Israel under jurisdiction of Israeli law--a move that will make it easier for the church to acquire property there.
Since the start of his papacy in 1978, John Paul has reached out in other ways to Jews. On a visit to the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, he called the Holocaust the "Golgotha of our century." In Rome in 1986, he became the first pope to visit a synagogue.
And last month he declared that certain erroneous interpretations of the New Testament had fueled centuries of hostility toward Jews, to the point of numbing many Christians into passivity when they should have been resisting the Nazis' systematic slaughter of Jews across Europe.
"Our parents could certainly never have imagined that so much progress could have been made in [Catholic-Jewish] relations in such a short time after so many centuries of misunderstanding," said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, adding that she was "overjoyed and moved" by Tuesday's candle lighting.
But Zevi was quick to point out, in remarks to reporters, that Jewish leaders still expect a Vatican apology for its own silence during the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was not mentioned in Tuesday's speeches here--by Cassidy and Msgr. Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, and by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Katzav. Neither did they discuss recent recriminations by some Jews against the Vatican for its alleged secrecy about its possible role in handling Nazi gold.
Instead, each side congratulated the other for its ecumenical spirit.
Unwrapping a Hanukkah gift from the Israelis, Cassidy found a brass menorah and admitted never having used one. He said he first realized he wanted one when Lindy Boggs, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, arrived last week with hers--awarded seven years ago by New Orleans Jewish women for her ecumenical work.
"I was jealous of Lindy Boggs," the cardinal said. "I thought, 'That's very unpleasant for me, being in charge of relations with Jews and not having a candle stand.' Now I'm very grateful to have one."
Chanukah Ceremonies at Vatican, Arch of Titus Are Full of Symbolism
ROME (Dec. 24)
Chanukah was ushered in in Rome this year with two unprecedented menorah-lighting ceremonies — one at the Vatican and one at the ancient Roman arch that is the symbol of the Jewish Diaspora.
After Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff chanted the blessings, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro lit the first candle of a huge menorah set up underneath the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, near the Colosseum.
The arch was built to celebrate the Roman victory over the Jews and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. On its inner side it has a carving showing the menorah from the Temple being carried by Jews brought to Rome as slaves.
That carving is one of the most infamous images in Jewish history — so much so that for centuries Jews would not walk through the arch. The menorah as shown, however, was the basis for the one that became the symbol of the State of Israel.
“This evening, a circle closes,” said Israel’s ambassador to Italy, Yehudah Millo. “We are here at the arch not as slaves but as representatives of the independent, free State of Israel.”
The ceremony at the arch, organized by the Israeli Embassy in conjunction with Italian authorities, was an hourlong extravaganza that marked not only the beginning of Chanukah, but also kicked off celebrations that will take place during the coming year to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel.
Italy’s political elite took part in the ceremony, which drew a crowd of hundreds, most of them members of the 15,000-strong Roman Jewish community.
Two hours earlier, just after sunset, Vatican, Israeli and Italian Jewish representatives lit a 2-foot-high silver menorah, on loan from the Rome Jewish Museum, in the Vatican garden.
The lighting, the first time that a Chanukah candle was kindled at the Vatican, also was aimed at celebrating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
The ceremony took place next to an olive tree that was planted there in 1995 to mark the first anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel.
The Vatican delegation was led by Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who lit the candle as the personal representative of Pope John Paul II.
Cassidy praised the development of Jewish-Catholic relations since the historic Nostra Aestate declaration of 1965.
“It is because of our common heritage and values as faith communities that we have come together here this evening,” he said before lighting the candle.
“There is much darkness in the world in which we live,” he said, expressing the hope that light and peace would prevail.
Aharon Lopez, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, said the ceremony symbolizes “the portent of the normalization of our mutual relations” and also represents “an important chapter in the historic process of reconciliation between the Jews and the Catholic Church.”
The past anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, as well as the Vatican role’s during the Holocaust era, has long been a subject of controversy. The latest development came earlier this month, when the Vatican denied it had stored money and gold for Croatian fascists after World War II.
A Vatican spokesman rejected calls for the Holy See to open its archives from that period.