Vatican Lights Its First Candle for Hanukkah


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.”