During his 43 years as a human rights activist, Rabbi Arthur Schneier has met three popes in the Vatican.
Next week the current head of the Catholic Church will pay the rabbi a return visit.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced on Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI will visit Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side on the afternoon of Friday, April 18, during the pontiff’s first trip to the United States. Only two popes are known to have previously set foot in a synagogue: Benedict XVI in Cologne in 2005, and his predecessor, John Paul II, in Rome in 1986.
"I thought that, particularly before Pesach, it would be a significant statement and message of good will in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations," Rabbi Schneier said of his invitation to the pope.
Passover starts the next day, the evening of April 19.
"This historic first is a reaffirmation of Pope Benedict VI’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and outreach to the Jewish community," Rabbi Schneier said. "You don’t come into someone’s home unless you wish them well. This is an opportunity for Pope Benedict to send a message of good will."
The pope, accompanied by his official delegation, will spend about a half hour in Park East, Rabbi Schneier said – the visit will conclude before the start of Friday evening Shabbat services. Leaders of the synagogue and the wider Jewish community will take part in the program that will include a welcome by students in the Park East Day School, and an exchange of statements by Rabbi Schneier and the pope.
The rabbi, who has maintained close contacts with members of the Vatican hierarchy for decades and had met John Paul II and Paul VI, met the current pope, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, after he succeeded John Paul II three years ago. The rabbi wouldn’t give any more details about how the visit by the pope came about.
Rabbi Schneier, spiritual leader of Park East since 1962, is founding president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, the ecumenical human rights organization that has served as the forum for the rabbi’s meeting with international religious and political leaders.
Benedict XVI "knew of the Appeal of Conscience’s work," the rabbi said.
He called the pope’s acceptance of his invitation a recognition of the importance of New York Jewry, "the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel." The pope, Rabbi Schneier said, "received hundreds of requests" from Catholic and other organizations here.
Rabbi Schneier traveled to the Vatican in 2006 to discuss the protection of religious sites around the world with Benedict XVI. The rabbi was part of a 24-member Jewish delegation that met John Paul II here in 1995 during a papal visit to the U.S.