- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

NEW YORK — Pope Benedict XVI made interfaith history yesterday by being the first pope to visit an American synagogue — a 125-year-old New York landmark where congregants gave him a standing ovation and Jewish children sang a joyous greeting song.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, appeared overwhelmed, calling the visit “a historic occasion that will be recorded in history forever.”

The pope also attended a short prayer service with 300 ecumenical Christian leaders, where he criticized the relativism present among some Christian groups and admonished them not to let “secularist ideology” cancel out the “transcendent truth” of a Christianity they are pledged to uphold.

First was the synagogue visit at 5:15 p.m., barely two hours before the start of Passover. A chorus of children sang “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” as the pope walked down the aisle.

“The sun is shining and the heavens are rejoicing in this day,” Mr. Schneier said. A mens chorus then sang the “Sh’ma Israel” chant as the scrolls of the Torah — the first five books of the Bible — were revealed in a large cabinet behind the podium.

“We bless the Lord for keeping us alive long enough to witness this visit,” the rabbi said. “We thank God for having spared us to witness this great occasion.”

Turning to the pope, he said: “Your presence here gives us courage for the road we still have to travel together.” Their meeting, he concluded, “symbolizes that inter-religious dialogue is vital and viable to the resolution of conflict.”

He presented Benedict with a large glass plate shaped like a traditional Seder plate used during the feast of Passover. In turn, the pontiff presented the synagogue a framed copy of a page from an illuminated parchment from the Vatican library drawn by Isaac ben Ovadia, a 15th-century Jewish scribe.

“I find it moving to recall that Jesus, as a young boy, heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this,” the pope said in a short response.

“I assure you most especially of my closeness at this time, as you prepare to celebrate the great deeds of the Almighty and to sing the praises of Him who has worked such wonders for his people,” he added, in a reference to Passover.

He then walked out the door to the notes of “Oseh Shalom,” a song welcoming the Jewish Sabbath.

His motorcade then traveled 20 blocks north to the ecumenical gathering, set in the context of a short prayer service at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Ecumenical relations, he warned the Christian leaders, have been weakened by “a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine” that “in alleging that science alone is ‘objective,’ relegates religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling.”

The dangers of relativism is a theme the pope has hammered on during recent years. Shortly before being elected pope in 2005, he gave a now-famous speech that criticized society’s “dictatorship of relativism.” He used last night’s occasion as a pep talk for his fellow believers, exhorting them to stand firmer in the faith.

“Even within the ecumenical movement, Christians may be reluctant to assert the role of doctrine for fear that it would only exacerbate rather than heal the wounds of division,” he said.

But the opposite is true, he added, saying leaders must preach “a clear, convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus” that comes from “normative apostolic teaching” based on “the inspired word of God” and a “sacramental life.”

Using the first person plural, he concluded with a plea for all Christian leaders to stand together.

“Only by ‘holding fast’ to sound teaching will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world,” he said. “Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message the world is waiting to hear from us.”

The gathering ended with the pope receiving personal greetings from 15 Christian leaders. Led by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, they included two Armenian archbishops and representatives of United Methodist, Episcopal, Missouri Synod Lutheran and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Pentecostal Holiness, Reformed Church in America, National Baptist Convention, and the Presbyterian Church in America.

The only female leader was Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King and a Baptist elder.

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