Eugenio Zolli :
from the synagogue to the Church of Rome
In a message addressed to the participants of the meeting between Jews and Catholics held in Paris last January by the European Jewish Congress, Pope John Paul II wrote : « Because of their respective identity, Jews and Christians are bound to one another and should pursue that culture of dialogue envisaged by the philosopher Martin Buber. » Belonging to the Neo-Hassidic obedience within Judaism, Martin Buber (1878-1965) set out his philosophy in Ich und Du (1937), which seems to have had a considerable influence on Karol Wojtyla’s thinking. Along with Rosenzweig, Buber was one of the pioneers of modern “ dialogue ” between Jews and Christians; he thought that the two faiths had the same value in God’s eyes and spoke of Jesus as his « brother ». Quite different was the path opened by his contemporary, Israel Zolli (1881-1956), whose exemplary spiritual progress we have begun to trace, following Judith Cabaud (EUGENIO ZOLLI, PROPHET OF A NEW WORLD, de Guibert, Paris 2000). Basing himself on the Old Testament as on a rock, the “ Rock of Israel ” (cf. Resurrection no 15, March 2002, p. 3-9), Zolli was not content with a “ philosophic ” view, juxtaposing Judaism and Christianity as two static entities in “ dialogue ”, each retaining its own position, but he opens a passage from one to the other, from Judaism to Christianity, from the Rock of Israel to the Catholic Church founded on the “ Rock ” which is Christ Our Lord, and he advances towards it as « the prophet of a new world », the precursor of a numerous people.
A PREDESTINED JEWISH CHILD
ISRAEL Zolli was born on September 17, 1881 at Brody, on the outer limits of Galicia, a region which fell to Austria when Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century. He was the youngest of five children. The family was well off and served by several domestics.
In 1888, the Russians confiscated the Zolli family’s silk factories which were in their territory, without compensation. Consequently the family’s standard of living was considerably reduced. « Blessed are the poor » : the first mark of predestination. Only one domestic, a Christian woman, chose to remain in the household, working for almost nothing; another providential grace.
The family split up and the eldest children left to look for work. « The little boy went with his comrades to the Kheder, a Jewish primary school, where reprimands, in the form of whippings, and rewards punctuated his daily life. The students applied themselves to reading and translating the books of the Pentateuch; and the recitation of a passage carefully learned by heart, accompanied by a judicious commentary, some- times earned Israel the reward of an apple. But one understands why his religious education properly so called developed more from a taste for the knowledge dispensed by Papa Zolli and from the explanations he gave his son of the text of the synagogue prayers, than from lessons learned at the end of a stick. »
As for his mother, « she taught him above all the precepts of love and charity. Moved by the misfortune of others, Mama Zolli devoted herself to good works. And when her initiatives exceeded her own private means, she had no hesitation in appealing to the other ladies in the neighbourhood, both Jewish and Catholic. The coexistence of the various religions of the Hapsburg empire reflected the multiplicity of the nationalities it contained : religious tolerance was based on a sort of mutual respect. Between Jews and Christians there did not exist any contempt or even mistrust in these remote provinces where only a tacit understanding reigned : “ Among the Israelites, one does not speak of these things and one does not ask questions […]. Christ is of interest to Christians, but not to us. ” »
And yet... one day the Jewish child Israel Zolli saw in the home of his classmate Stanislas, the Christian son of a widow, a crucifix hanging on a white wall. The profound, indelible impression he took away from this was secretly to guide his entire spiritual quest to come.
His mother wanted him to become a rabbi. She economised in order to allow him to continue his studies. However, what tormented him was the thought : « To become a rabbi, one must study hard, but what I am learning is as simple as arithmetic. » He could not have given a better description of the 613 commandments of the Torah : the 365 prohibitions, one for each day of the year, and the 248 obligations, one for each member of the human body (Makkoth 23 b)… None of this of course takes one very far !
« Would it not be better for the Torah to be lived ? » he asked. From the age of eight he took to wondering about the inner life of God : « What did God do before He created the world ? and why did He create it ? » For him, everything was like a veil hiding some mystery. An ink stain on his trousers would make him think of the ugliness of sin. A feeling of love would raise his mind to the thought of God who washes away all stains through His mercy, and so on with many other things.
THE BURNING BUSH
At the age of thirteen, at a time when a Jewish child is admitted into the community of men (bar mitzvah), the little Israel plumbed the emptiness of his soul. « Instead of conforming, like all those around him, to the exegetic, abstract and endless meditation of the commentaries on the Talmud, he contemplated nature », and sought for truth in the Canticle of creatures. But plants and animals cannot speak and « remained indifferent to his thirst for God : “ It seems to me, he wrote, that I hear a far-off voice calling me; it comes from the infinite. I can hear it calling me. ” »
His name ? « His name is Yahweh, the ineffable name, Being. » In this way the sacred divine Name, which rabbinical tradition forbids one to write and pronounce, forced itself upon the adolescent with the very intensity « of a flame of fire springing from a bush », just as He revealed Himself to Moses as he pastured the sheep of Jethro, his father-in-law, on God’s mountain : Horeb (Ex 3).
« A curious dialogue was established between the creature and the voice of his Creator. The young Zolli experienced a genuine spiritual solitude and his comrades seemed remote to him. Even the earth, the object of his study of the natural sciences, strewn as it was with corpses, dried plants or the remains of dead animals, resembled this interior desert. Isolated and in a world of his own, the child occasionally returned to the reality of everyday life by remembering the poverty of his parents. Then silence once again took hold of his quietened soul. “ It is in the consciousness of one’s inner emptiness that one discovers an impenetrable whole, something that is both disturbing and sweet, which both wounds and heals, leaving one the impression sometimes of nothingness, sometimes of plenitude. ” »
The freedom of this child’s soul was astonishing. For we now find him defying a second prohibition : « He sometimes remembered the crucifix he had seen on the white wall of the house of his friend Stanislas, and he had a keen sense of the injustice committed against this gentle figure of a man nailed on a cross. It reminded him of Isaiah’s “ Suffering Servant ” whom he had read about in the prophetic books. And he could not help asking : “ Does God suffer ? and just who is this Servant of whom the prophet speaks ? ” »
A DISCIPLE’S EAR
The Zolli family moved to Lvov. When he was eighteen, Israel finished his secondary education. He gave lessons so that he might be able to enter university. Studying Jewish history and philosophy, « the adolescent rejected the Hellenic influence and its intellectual splendours; there are no prophets in Greece, he wrote, only philosophers; and philosophers are concerned with the exact knowledge of nature, not with the knowledge of God. They want to organise the city of men and to sing the beauties of nature, but do they ever think of the city of God ? »
What this adolescent was searching for was a knowledge full of love : « His heart was enflamed by the messianic announcement of the prophets. » He went straight to the precious pearl of the Old Testament, with the sure instinct which, in those very same years, had also guided Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus in her Carmel at Lisieux to it : the four songs of the Servant of Yahweh present us with a person called and formed by Yahweh, and filled with His spirit « as a “ disciple ”, whose ear Yahweh “ opens ” so that he in his turn might bring justice to the world and instruct men. He accomplishes his mission without any outward commotion, in mildness and apparent failure. Exposed to outrages and contempt, he accepts all, but does not falter because Yahweh gives him strength. The fourth song (Is 53) contemplates this suffering of the Servant, innocent like Job, but treated as a malefactor struck by God and doomed to an ignominious death. In reality, he offered himself up for sinners whose sins he bore, interceding for them, and Yahweh, through an unprecedented operation of His power, turned this expiating suffering into the salvation of all. The prophet then predicted a “ descendant ” for the Servant, one who would gather Israel together : he would be the light of the nations for all men. » (p. 19-20)
What value has the philosophy of Maimonides compared to these magnificent events ? « Completely ignorant at that time of scholastic Christian philosophy, Israel trembled at the way his professors and future colleagues discussed Maimonidean thought : “ It was as though they wanted to photograph God with a camera composed of syllogisms. How can one say that God is a ‘ mobile-immobile ’ ? That suggested to me the idea of a broken down car. I actually thought that my mind was weak as I did not understand. I lagged behind like a soldier wounded in battle and entrusted to the Red Cross. ”
« In fact, analyses Judith Cabaud, the common denominator between the Hebrew texts such as the Song of Songs and the songs of the Suffering Servant depicting the man on the gibbet glimpsed by the young Israel, was the irresistible feeling of love he felt burning within him like a flame. And it was this very love that would protect his adolescent mind against the abstract reasoning of the Talmudists. »
THE GOSPEL MODIFICATION
One can understand why he abandoned the quibbles enjoyed by his comrades who used to debate « weighty matters » as, for example, the quantity of water required for a ritual bath. « Occasionally, when he had a few hours spare, one is surprised to learn that the young man went off on his own into the countryside, far from the city, taking with him a small copy of the Gospels. Surrounded by greenery and immersed in nature, he meditated on the Beatitudes and immediately compared them to his habitual reading of the Psalms : “ Justice in the Old Testament is exercised between one man and another, reciprocally; consequently, God’s justice towards man must be exercised in the same way. We offer and we do good for the good we receive; we do evil for the evil we have suffered at the hands of others. Not to repay evil for evil is, in a certain manner, to fail in justice. ” »
So what a surprise to read in the Gospel : « Love your enemies… pray for them », or again to hear Jesus saying from the Cross : « Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. »
« All this astonished me, exclaims Israel in his memoirs; for the New Testament really is a new Testament ! » In his eyes, this new conception of « justice » was more important than the question of Christ’s divinity : « Here, writes Zolli, is the beginning of a new world : a new earth, a new heaven. The kingdoms of this world disappear, but the outline of a heavenly kingdom can be seen in which the rich attached to their land are poor, and the poor who know how to practice detachment are truly rich since they are the heirs of a kingdom that belongs to the afflicted, the voiceless and the persecuted, who have never persecuted others but have loved. »
In 1904, Israel lost his mother. He thought : « Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. »
A MASTER IN ISRAEL
He left Lvov and his family which he would never see again, and went to Vienna where he enrolled at the university. But he remained there only for a semester before leaving for Florence, fleeing the quarrels that disrupted student life by pitting the partisans of Austrian nationalism, who tended to be pan-Germanic and anti-Semitic, against those of nascent Zionism.
« Having enrolled at the Institute of Higher Studies and also at the Italian Rabbinical College, he conceived a passion for Greek literature, philosophy, psychology, the Arabian language and Egyptian civilisation. However, he describes these years as “ grey and cold ”, for he had to accustom himself to privations of body and mind. He did not get along with the director of rabbinical studies, S.-M. Margulies, for the young man could not help but point out the profound contradictions in the teaching of the law dispensed at the seminary. For example, they applied themselves to practical problems posed by the observance of the law such as when a needle is inserted into part of the intestines of an animal marked for slaughter; or the case of a chicken’s egg laid on the Sabbath. Do such facts, considered “ problems ” by Jewish dietetics, really render food impure ? »
However, he persevered out of filial piety for his mother : « He faithfully accomplished the studies required to become a rabbi, while at the same time obtaining his university diploma of doctor in philosophy with a specialisation in psychology. And after nine long and difficult years, he was finally appointed Vice Rabbi of the city of Trieste.
« In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, Zolli, who was then thirty-two, married Adele Litwak from Lvov, a union from which a little girl, Dora, was born. »
Trieste had been a German-speaking university city and an Austrian naval base until 1918, but became the territory of Italy after the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The government and the local authorities asked Israel Zoller to accept the post of Chief Rabbi of Trieste.
It was then that he came across the movement of the Young Zionists founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. They had come from eastern Europe, from the borders of the Russian empire, during the 1880’s, when anti-Jewish hostility was growing in tsarist Russia. For him, this was no ordinary nationalism :
« I would have liked to have seen Jews from the countries of persecution taking refuge and devoting themselves to productive work in Uganda, whilst retaining their centre of spiritual and intellectual life in Jerusalem. » That was Theodor Herzl’s idea in 1904, but the proposition was rejected by the seventh Zionist Congress. « All this, adds Zoller, not in order to encumber the world with a new breed of nationalism or yet another kind of racism (there are all ready too many), but in order to see arising from these new centres a light of spirituality and universalism, something more than mere Hellenistic cosmopolitanism, rather a new light of human and divine charity. I used to dream of a land, but one that would be a launch pad for Heaven. » The expression is beautiful, and of biblical inspiration.
THE NAME OF JESUS
Having adopted Italian nationality, Zolli did his best for the Zionist refugees; he continued to write articles in German for the Viennese reviews, and taught Semitic languages at the University of Padua : « The rabbi attracted a large number of students to his lectures, several of whom were seminarians. One of them, Father Fiorani, relates how he deliberately went every week to listen to Zolli and how he and the other young clerics continued to pray for their illustrious professor. »
His wife Adele, having passed away shortly after the birth of Dora, he married Emma Majonica in 1920, and a second girl, Miriam, was born of this union. « Full of humour and poetry, he devoted himself to the education of his two girls, personally attending to the smallest of details, taking care of them in their little illnesses, soothing their innocent troubles with a tenderness that was almost maternal and delighting in opening up their minds and hearts. »
« My father taught me to see the world », confided his daughter to his biographer, Judith Cabaud. She told her how her father took her to Rome and explained to her the bond uniting the Old and the New Testament by showing her the prophets, apostles and saints painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Those twenty years between the two World Wars « were above all a time of extraordinary spiritual development ». Israel Zoller read the Bible as an integral whole. « And this fact is particularly surprising for a rabbi, for he dipped into both the Old and New Testaments without any complex : Isaiah, Job, Jesus, Paul; both the Psalms and the Zohar (sic !). » Even the Jews do not confuse the Kabala with Sacred Scripture ! For his Jewish colleagues, « Sacred Scripture » comprised the Old Testament exclusively, and even excluded the books that have come down to us in Greek alone : Baruch, Tobit, Judith, the Books of the Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (or Siracides), and the Greek sections of the books of Esther and Daniel. But Rabbi Zoller knew no barriers : « Everything comes from God, he wrote. We too, we come from Him. We are from Him and in Him; and He is in us. »
« However, at the time, the idea of conversion was far from Zolli’s mind and he did not even entertain the question. Every evening, he contented himself with opening the Bible at random, either the Old or the New Testament, in order to meditate. This is how the person of Jesus and His teachings became familiar to him without any preconceived ideas intruding themselves or conferring on his reading the taste of forbidden fruit. »
It was then that he was favoured with his first mystical experience : « Very soon, during the period of his widowerhood, when he was overwhelmed with grief and innumerable worries of an administrative nature, he took refuge in an intense intellectual labour. One afternoon, while he was working on an article for the Lehrerstimme of Vienna, he suddenly felt disconnected from himself : “ All at once, he wrote, and without knowing why, I placed my pen on the table and, as though in an ecstasy, I invoked the name of Jesus. I found no peace until I beheld him in a large unframed picture in a dark corner of the room. I contemplated him for a long while, without agitation, experiencing rather a perfect serenity of mind. I had gone as far as I could with the Sacred Scripture of the old covenant. ” » He means « of the Old Testament », showing thereby that he accepts the distinction between the Old and the New Testament, ordinarily rejected by the Jews who recognise only the Old as Sacred Scripture.
« I said to myself : “ Was not Jesus a Son of my people ? Was not he spirit of the same spirit ? ” »
Henceforth, before any question of conversion arose, « Jesus was, neither more nor less, the guest of his interior life. »
Judith Cabaud summarises the journey of the rabbi in a few telling phrases of a surprising topicality : « In 1918, Zolli had placed the Catholic Church on the same level as the Israelite Community as institutional centres of religious life. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, it was Jesus Christ in person who was to lead him to take the decisive step towards the Church. This in fact was all that Zolli had been waiting for. As he himself wrote : “ Conversion consists in answering God’s call. Man does not chose the moment of his conversion, but he is converted when he receives this call from God. Then there is but one thing to do : obey ”. And the rabbi ended in this manner : “ There was nothing premeditated, nothing prepared : there was only the Lover, Love, and the One Loved. It was a movement that came from Love, an experience lived in a light tempered by Love; everything was accomplished in the knowledge conferred by Love. ” » (p. 35)
Here we are poles apart from the claims of religious liberty considered as a human right !
THE MIDDLE TESTAMENT
Two works are the fruit of these twenty years of intense labour. The first, published in 1935 and entitled Israel, is a historical and religious reflection on Jewish monotheism, conducted « with a frankness and honesty extremely rare among Hebraic scholars », remarks Judith Cabaud. Going back to the revelation of the Burning Bush, our rabbi did not see monotheism as arising from philosophical reasoning, but rather from a heart completely set on fire. This luminous intuition soon enabled him to understand how the history of the Jewish people was finally concentrated in the history of a single Person : that of God made man out of love for the souls He wishes to save.
In his second and principal work, The Nazarene, published in 1938, the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Trieste, whilst fully engaged in his teaching and university work, undertook to methodically explore the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. The result of his labours, lying at the heart of his religious discovery, would subsequently be developed in a masterly work : Christus.
Examining the etymology of the word « Nazarene », Zolli observes that, according to Saint Matthew, this term refers firstly to a geographical location : the city of Nazareth. « However, this name is not found in the lists compiled by the Egyptians, nor in biblical or Talmudic literature, nor even in the writings of the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. » This is precisely what allows rationalists and modernists to affirm that Nazareth is a myth. We have also heard the very existence of Nazareth being questioned on the Arte channel in their program Corpus Christi.
Now, Rabbi Zoller’s response to this is remarkable because it anticipated the new data that would only come to light ten years later at Qumran. First of all, he upheld the existence of Nazareth on the strength of Saint Luke’s account and located the inaugural discourse of Our Lord’s public life in the synagogue at Nazareth. Archaeology would prove him right, as have the excavations carried out by the Franciscans : they have shown that this locality was already inhabited from before the time of the Patriarchs.
However, being an obscure village in a despised province, Nazareth only entered into history with Jesus « the Nazarene » who spent His childhood and His hidden life there with Mary and Joseph. Jesus was called « the Nazorean » because he lived at Nazareth. As this village was unknown in the Old Testament, it is no less clear that Matthew is playing on another word, signifying something other than a geographic location. Rabbi Zoller then formulated the hypothesis : « The term Jesus the “ Nazir ”, he writes, might refer to “ one who is consecrated, in other words to God’s envoy ”. » An absolutely brilliant intuition, today confirmed by the evidence of a fragment from Qumran (4Q Sam). When Matthew wrote his Gospel, one could read, in verse 22 of the first chapter of the First Book of Samuel, these words of Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, speaking to her husband about their child, Samuel : « I shall give him as nazir all the days of his life. » Today, the word nazir is absent from the Massoretic text of our present day Hebraic Bible. According to Cross, the editor of the Qumran fragment, this omission is a copyist’s error.
But why not tell the whole story ? Another explanation presents itself. We have shown, from the works of Father Barthélemy, that the rabbis who took refuge at Jamnia after the destruction of the Temple by Titus in the year 70 AD, did not hesitate to carry out, on their own initiative, « a whole system of theological corrections » calculated to act as a “ rebuttal ” of the Gospel already spread throughout the Empire1. The censuring of the word nazîr in the Massoretic text of the First Book of Samuel is a deliberate “ correction ” of this kind, one that has been adopted and handed down by all the witnesses of the Massoretic text even to our own days. For what purpose ? That of contradicting the prophetic argument invoked by Matthew when he writes that Jesus, Mary and Joseph, on their return from Egypt, after the death of Herod, settled at Nazareth « that the words spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled : “ He shall be called a Nazorean ”. » (Mt 2.23)
By describing the prophesy quoted by Saint Matthew as a « magnificent bogus verse », Father Nodet fell into the trap set by the rabbis and even went so far as to accuse Saint Matthew of “ forgery and handling forgeries ”. As for Rabbi Zolli, he avoided this trap and understood everything : « The term “ Jesus the Nazir ” could refer to “ one who is consecrated, in other words to God’s envoy ”. » Today the discovery of the authentic version of the Book of Samuel allows us to be more precise : Saint Matthew, like Saint Luke, establishes a parallel between the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth and that of Samuel, son of Hannah, a miracle child, consecrated to Yahweh from his birth and raised in the sanctuary where, « girded with a linen ephod », he served the high priest and « grew in stature and beauty before both Yahweh and men » (1 S 2.26).
The books of Samuel were listed among « the earlier prophets » along with those of Joshua, Judges and Kings. When he writes « that the words spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled : “ He shall be called a Nazorean ” », Saint Matthew is also thinking of Samson whose birth was announced to his mother by the Angel of Yahweh in these terms : « Behold, you will conceive and bear a son […]. The boy shall be nazir […]. It is he who will begin to save Israel. » (Jg 13.5)
Samson and Samuel are prophetic figures of Jesus, Son of Mary, the saviour of His people, who grew up at Nazareth and who was called in all truth « the Nazorean ».
Rabbi Zolli was not mistaken in his intuition. He did not let himself be misled by the impious tampering of his co-religionists who even today are held up as world authorities, as can be seen in Kittel’s new critical edition which falsifies the prophecies even though they clearly point to « Jesus of Nazareth », « Jesus the Nazarene », Him whom Rabbi Israel Zoller did not hesitate to call « the flower of the prophets ».
In this way our rabbi truly appears to be a Jew of the “ Middle Testament ”, to use the expression coined by the Abbé de Nantes to designate the Essenians who lived in expectation of the Messiah, who recognised Him, and who furnished the first generation of Christians immediately after Pentecost. Zolli is a survivor of this generation, two thousand years later ! Or rather, he is a precursor of the conversion of the Jews, announced by Saint Paul for the end times, according to Judith Cabaud’s particularly apt subtitle : “ Prophet of a New World ”.
A simple comparison between the exegesis of the Dominican Father Nodet and that of the Chief Rabbi of Trieste illustrates the words of Saint Paul, according to which the conversion of the Jews « will be a resurrection from the dead » (Rm 11.15).
Thenceforth the rabbi pursued his meditations with an admirable serenity, drawn by the Suffering Servant prophesised by the second Isaiah, whom Zoller was careful not to confuse with the people of Israel. Each time an exegete committed this error, « earth was mistaken for Heaven, writes Zolli, and Heaven was once again denied for a tiny strip of earth. » An extraordinary description of the tragedy that Israel is presently undergoing in Palestine.
No ! the “ Suffering Servant ” is not the people of Israel victimised by the Shoah ! but Christ the Redeemer, God made man, saving the world through His sacrifice. « Despised, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering […], we took no account of him. Yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried […]. He was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins […]; through his wounds we are healed. » (p. 47)
Israel Zolli’s merit in recognising in Jesus Christ the Suffering Servant of Isaiah was all the greater in that the rabbis had gone to great lengths to muddy the waters, as can be seen by a close comparison of the Massoretic text with the two scrolls of Isaiah discovered in Qumran’s cave 1. Five hundred years earlier, the fourth poem of the Servant announced that this mystery of Redemption would be the work of the Messiah, the son of David. To deface this clear prophesy, all it needed was to replace meshahtî, « I have anointed », with an unintelligible word : mishhtat. All it took was a yod, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet (cf. our study of the Middle Testament already quoted, English CRC, no 275, April 1995, p. 9-12).
How could anyone resist such proofs ? The identification of the Suffering Servant with Jesus Christ was no longer a matter of doubt for Israel Zoller. As for Jesus’ divine filiation, the rabbi used the term “ exousia ” to define the divine power shared equally by both Jesus and His Father. Citing several sources in the Gospels, he accepts that « “ Jesus the prophet was invested with messianic royalty […]. He was sent by God. He is the Servant of God predicted by Isaiah; in Him the prophets of the Old Testament find their fulfilment. Jesus wants God’s will to be done : morally, these two wills are but one. And this unity is a fertile source of divine power : He is the vanquisher of Satan […]. This power is suited to working miracles, pardoning sins, and making Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath. Its word is of absolute authority. ”
« His reading of the prophets, continues Judith Cabaud, inevitably led Rabbi Zolli to a profession of faith that makes a distinction between Jesus-Prophet and Jesus-Messiah : “ He is not the Son of God because he is the Messiah, he writes, but He is the Messiah because He is the Son of God. ‘ Messiah ’ is His mission; ‘ Son of God ’ is His relationship to His Father. And from this relationship emanates the light of the exousia, illuminating Jesus’ mission, birth, life, works, Passion, death and glorification. ” »
FROM THE OLD TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
Henceforth, when reading the Gospels, Rabbi Zolli viewed them in their constant relationship to the Old Testament, in keeping with the tradition of the Church Fathers. For example, « the use of compasses, calculations, measuring rods or squares » by God, the architect of the universe, are figures of the logic, laws and justice which preside over human relations. But God’s attributes are of another order : clemency, mercy, charity and truth surpass such measurements and go beyond the “ law ” to arrive at the truth, the charity and the infinity of the Catholic Christian religion in all its fullness.
When He forgives sins, « Our Lord makes use of the principles of the Talmud and carries them to their ultimate consequences according to the spirit and not according to the letter », writes Judith Cabaud, without stopping to ask herself how Jesus could have read the Talmud of Jerusalem or that of Babylon, which date respectively from the fifth and sixth centuries after Jesus Christ !
This violent anachronism leads to a complete reversal of roles : « Jesus adopted rabbinical formulas in the prayer of the Our Father », she writes (p. 50). Impossible ! Some time ago, in a scientific critical note on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we showed that rabbinical prayer plagiarises and contradicts Christian prayer. For example, the prayer known as « sanctification of the Name », the Qaddish, written in Aramaic in various forms depending on where it comes in the synagogue service, is the explicit antithesis of our Pater!
Now, in this crucial matter, Rabbi Zolli proved himself to be a Jew of the “ Middle Testament ”, an adversary of the Scribes and Pharisees, as were the Essenians of Qumran… He had, as it were, anticipated our most modern critical studies, as did Jesus Christ ! by challenging their antichristic polemic founded on the so-called “ oral tradition ” which they claimed to hold from Moses. « You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions », he told them (Mk 7.8). With rigorous fidelity to the text, Zolli sees in the Sermon on the Mount a « veritable polemic against the legalistic character of the Jewish religion ». And he demonstrates that it is Our Lord who is in accord with Scripture, and not the rabbis : « Zolli demonstrates how each beatitude is related to the psalms or to the prophetic texts of the old covenant. » (p. 54)
« Israel Zolli, by constantly taking the side of the prophets of the Old Testament, rebelled against Talmudic literalism and in this way (sic !) was inevitably swept up in the messianic current foreseen by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. » (p. 56) In a few pages Judith Cabaud describes the rich meditations of this Jewish rabbi, « “ strolling ” through the Gospel landscape » :
« Now and then Zolli lingers on a sentence pronounced by Jesus. He comments on it with all the assurance lent him by his linguistic knowledge and biblical erudition, like someone who recognises a photograph or family document. » What a perfect description !
For example, in a chapter entitled The Breaking of Bread, Zolli writes : « Bread and wine were the symbols of brotherhood at every festival meal celebrated by the Hebrews. » Even before the unleavened bread of the exodus from Egypt, « a bread shared out, then taken away, and finally restored under the aspect of the manna in the desert, a sign of the gift of life desired by the Most High, wine had always been offered from the time of Abraham in exchange for a blessing on the chosen people. » Indeed, « Melchisedech, king of Salem, brought bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He pronounced this blessing : “ Blessed be Abraham by God Most High, creator of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High for handing over your enemies to you. ” And Abraham gave him a tithe of everything. » (Gn 14.18-20)
Wine « represents the gathering of the fruit of the vine, harvested, pressed then fermented over time, in order to create a beverage which symbolises at one and the same time the life of the chosen people and their suffering.
« The central element of the paschal meal nonetheless remains the indestructible bond uniting all those who take part in the banquet : it is the lamb whose body bears the mark of the sacrifice offered for all in general. Before the Exodus, when the final plague was about to carry off the firstborn of the Egyptians, Moses prescribed that each Israelite family should immolate a lamb whose blood would mark and protect the homes of the Hebrews at the passing of the Angel of destruction. This sacrifice of the lamb, perpetuated throughout the centuries, was actualised by the last meal that Christ had with His disciples. Thus it was that, during the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of His impending death and proclaimed that He Himself, in Person, would be the sacrifice offered to God, a sacrifice surpassing even that of Abraham. His sacrifice abolished the rite of the paschal lamb : henceforth, He is the incarnation of the Suffering Servant become the Lamb of God.
« The bread and the wine which have really been changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, replace the paschal lamb, expressing a sacrifice of purification as well as of the family which becomes (through communion) a single body. »
« One can only wonder and be amazed, writes Judith Cabaud, at the simplicity and candour shown by this Chief Rabbi of Trieste who studies Sacred Scripture with a child’s heart. »
Let us also quote this penetrating comparison between Jesus and Job : « In his ordeal, Job complains and appeals to divine justice. He does not want to suffer but he cannot avoid it. Eventually, resigned, he submits to his destiny and awaits the hour of God.
« On the other hand, the Suffering Servant in the Person of Jesus Christ sanctifies His trials through His silence; He sees in God His protector and His aid. Finally He consents to suffer in order to atone for sins in a voluntary expiatory sacrifice. His very will becomes identified with that of God’s : “ It is in Him that God offers Himself and suffers. ” » (p. 63)
FROM THE SYNAGOGUE TO SAINT PETER’S IN
ROME A FOOTBRIDGE OPENED UP FOR ISRAEL
In Rome, the synagogue is situated on the left bank of the Tiber, opposite Saint Peter’s basilica on the other side. What was it that Israel needed before he could pass from one bank to the other ? Freedom. For the time being, as a prisoner among his people, the rabbi spared no effort to save them from genocide. It remains for us to relate how, having become Chief Rabbi of Rome in 1940, Israel Zoller made it through this furnace of the Second World War and crossed, not the bridge, but the footbridge leading from one bank of the Tiber to the other.
But first we must critique a suspect note inserted in the middle of the book, as though by the alien hand of some ecclesiastical censor, a specialist in rabbinical literature. This note alone is sufficient to destroy the tenor of the rest of the book (page 65, note 1).
Referring to the legends propagated by the rabbis against the Person of Jesus from the end of the first century down to our own times, according to which Jesus « practised a sort of magic capable of leading the people of Israel on the road to perdition », the author of the note quotes modern “ scholars ”, copyists of the Mishna (2nd century AD) and of the Talmuds of Jerusalem (5th century AD) and Babylon (6th century AD), who have handed these legends down to us :
« The current Jewish encyclopaedia, writes the author referring to The Universal Jewish Encyclopaedia, KTAV, New York, 1969, considers that if this tradition proves the historicity of the person of Jesus, it shows on the other hand (sic) that he had practically no influence on Jewish thought. »
End of note. Without comment. The reader is simply left with this affirmation of a radical break between Jewish thought and Christian revelation. But the bad faith of the authors of the encyclopaedia is only too apparent and needs to be pointed out, if for no other reason than to emphasise, by contrast, the good faith of Rabbi Zolli, an example for us all. How can one say that Jesus had « practically no influence on Jewish thought » when the entire rabbinical tradition developed in opposition to Christ and His Church, as shown by the most recent studies, those of Fathers Nodet and Taylor for example. (cf. English CRC no 315, January 1999, p. 13-18) ?
In recognising this two thousand year old antagonism, exegetical and historical science does no wrong to the Jews : apart from « a small number of the elect », explained Saint Paul to these pagan Romans, the Jews « were made obstinate » by a positive will of God; their incredulity is a « false step » permitted for the conversion of the pagans, « so that this might arouse their own jealousy » (Rm 11.11).
It is because the Jews rejected the Gospel that Paul turned towards the pagans (Ac13.46) with a success to which the entry en masse of the Jews into the Church would have proved an obstacle. However, this infidelity is only temporary, declares the Apostle. It is ordered to their future conversion : « For if their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, what will their admission mean, if not a resurrection from the dead ? » (Rm 11.15)
We pray with all heart for this resurrection of which the admirable Eugene Zolli was, in the 20th century, the precursor and the guide of his people.
ZIONISM : A DISAPPOINTMENT !
« Busilly aged throughout the 1920’s in obtaining visas, passports and tickets to Israel for Jews leaving Central Europe, Rabbi Zolli had personally assisted Zionists who flocked in great numbers to the port of Trieste. Whatever their origins or political and religious leanings, Zolli had great expectations as he saw them embarking for Palestine. Eventually he went there himself to visit the crowds of Israelites who believed that a new light was dawning in Jerusalem. » His stay was brief and marked by a tremendous sense of disillusionment. He expressed it thus :
« The Bible, the eternal source of devotion, the path which leads to God, has become a national monument. And a professor of the University of Jerusalem teaches that the Kingdom of the Messiah, according to the Hebrew conception, is of this world ! It is as though they were sacrificing the Kingdom for the kingdom... My soul then put on garbs of mourning. I felt excluded, an expatriate, a foreigner in the house in which I was born. I did not understand and I could not make myself understood. » (p. 66-67)
What would he say today !
« And so it was, he continues, that I lay languishing and dying; day after day, hour after hour, I was dying to be reborn to the great light of Christ. »
On the other hand, what King Victor Emmanuel III had said to Theodor Herzl in 1904 still remained true : « For us the Jews are fully-fledged Italians. » Even if that meant “ italianising ” patronymic names in response to the pressure which Germany brought to bear on fascist Italy : « And so Rabbi Zolli’s official identity was changed from his original name, Israel Zoller, to the legally acceptable name of Italo Zolli ! Many others also lost their civil rights and were denied permission to emigrate. »
Later, to protect the Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, Mussolini would bring them together in internment camps in Southern Italy, opposing their transfer to Germany. « We have no wish to be executioners », he said. Zolli has shown the fundamental benevolence of his heart in these tragic circumstances. In 1935, having managed to send Mussolini a report on the exactions committed against the Jews in Germany, he learned that the Duce had read his report and had concluded :
« I have always said that if you scratch the surface of a German, you will discover a barbarian ! » (p. 69)
Then he promised to discuss the matter with the Reich’s ambassador.
Zolli disapproved of this summary judgement, which was unjust to Germans who bravely risked their lives to defend the Jews. But in his Memoirs, he refuses to indulge in a simplistic “ antifascism ” : according to him, Mussolini’s remark was merely proof of his kind compassionate heart.
One day a Catholic professor of the history of art organised a series of anti-Semitic lectures in a parish hall in Trieste and « a large audience was expected; a special tram service and additional policemen had been drafted in to maintain public order, because demonstrations by Jewish youth were expected » (p. 71).
Rabbi Zolli went to visit a Jesuit priest, a friend of the speaker and asked him point blank : « Was not Christ a Jew according to the flesh ? Did he not, while on the cross, ask forgiveness for his enemies ? How then can a good Catholic organise such lectures without realising that he is crucifying Christ in spirit, in his holy will and in his teaching ? »
The rabbi announced to the taken-aback priest « that in virtue of the long lineage of prophets to which he belonged, he took the liberty of “ prophesying ” that the time was near when they would both become good friends ». Clearly troubled, Father Petazzi objected that the public had been invited and the programs already printed.
« Zolli shrugged his shoulders and advised him simply to read the Gospel as he often did himself. In silence, the two men went out into the pouring rain, and the professor accompanied the rabbi back home.
« On the next Sunday, before a packed house, the conference organiser spoke of a senior Jewish figure who had troubled his conscience; and he assured the crowd that, henceforth, he no further wished to continue down the path on which he had previously gone astray. He also announced that the other eight lectures were cancelled. »
One of his students told Rabbi Zolli what had happened. « Surprised by such a rapid reversal, he asked the boy :
- And afterwards ?
- A lot of clapping, answered the young man, and then a mad rush to find a seat on the trams ! »
In 1940, the Israeli community of Rome offered Israel Zolli the vacant post of Chief Rabbi and Rector of the Rabbinical College. At a time when anti-Semitic laws were being enforced in Italy under German duress, this promotion was no sinecure, « and could almost be considered a kind of death sentence ! » (p. 78) Especially as the Jewish community was torn between the partisans of Mussolini and those who opposed him, the latter being in the minority but virulently Zionist. The rabbi tried to call both groups to prayer and fraternal charity, but he ran up against a wall of « icy silence », to use his own expression. Nevertheless, undeterred, « Zolli thoroughly embraced the cause of God against this headlong flight », because « it is vain for man to flee from God, he wrote. It is as though one were to live under a false name, under the illusion of actually being someone else. »
He resumed his teaching and his duties in the Synagogue on the left bank of the Tiber, bringing aid to those who were truly poor and finding work for Jews victimised by the anti-Semitic legislation then in force. « In fact, as Judith Cabaud reminds us, the Jewish community in Rome is one of the oldest in the world and one of the best integrated in Europe. From the time of the Renaissance, it has benefited from the general goodwill of the native population as well as from the indulgence of the papacy. »
But that does not go far enough. We should recall that the Roman Church has always taken up the defence of the Jews, not only out of Christian charity, but also for a reason splendidly expressed by Pascal : « They are visibly a people expressly made to serve as a witness to the Messiah... They preserve the Books, and love them, and do not understand them. And all of this has been foretold : God’s judgements have been entrusted to them, but only as a sealed book. » (Pensée 643) Thus the Jews have become the guardians beyond suspicion of the proofs of Jesus Christ; they are the instruments of His glory, precisely on account of the fact that they have rejected Him : « If the Jews had all been converted by Jesus Christ, we would only have questionable witnesses left. And had they all been exterminated, we would have had no witnesses at all. » (Pensée 750)
This is the most profound reason for the constant support given by Pope Pius XII to the Jews, as we shall see.
THE LIONS’ DEN
In September 1943, the tanks of the Wehrmacht invaded the Eternal City. Zolli summed up the situation of his coreligionists in this lapidary manner : « They were Italian like everybody else; they were Jewish and therefore not like everybody else. » He was expecting the worst, but his warnings were simply met by the complacent confidence of the leaders of the Jewish community : « In Rome, they claimed, Hitler would not dare to irritate the Vatican whose influence is so dominant, or to provoke the Pope into protesting publicly against a possible persecution; moreover, the number of Jews in Rome is minimal. »
Zolli was better informed : « A Catholic friend, a regular visitor to the German embassy in Rome, kept him up to date about the plans for the Israelite population as the Nazi leaders elaborated them. » He knew that if nothing were done, « there will be a bloodbath. Who knows how many Jews will pay with their lives ? » It was essential to close all centres of worship : « Prayers can be said at home. Let everyone pray where he is. After all, God is everywhere. » It was necessary to disperse the population, not to let Jews gather or move around together; above all, it was essential to destroy the synagogue’s files and its register of names : « We are happy to abandon ourselves into the hands of the Lord, for He is merciful, wrote Zolli; but preserve us from falling into the hands of men ! »
« Having returned home despite everything, his daughter Miriam made him leave as a matter of urgency. “ Everybody is leaving the Ghetto, she said. We must stay alive; here, we shall die. ” And Zolli, together with his wife Emma and his daughter, made his way through the alley-ways amidst the gun fire.
« From the evening of September 10, the German army was in control of the city of Rome, and because half of the Italian territory was now in his troops’ hands, Himmler judged that the moment had come to force the Italians to take part in the ideology of the “ Final Solution ”... »
Zolli immediately had the opportunity of testing the Pope’s solicitude and he was not disappointed. Himmler had ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the SS in Rome, « to assemble all Jews, men and women, the children and the elderly, and to despatch them to Germany ». Kappler resorted to blackmail, ordering the two presidents of the Jewish community « to deliver fifty kilos of gold in twenty-four hours on threat of the immediate deportation of all men from the Jewish population of the city. » This fact is reported in the Acts and Documents of the Holy See relative to the Second World War, published in twelve volumes by Father Blet SJ. Rabbi Zolli specifies that the list of ransomed hostages comprised three hundred names, at the top of which appeared his.
The next morning, September 29, the community had collected thirty-five kilograms of gold. Only one solution was left : to go to the Vatican to borrow the missing fifteen kilos. An “ Aryan ” friend of his, Doctor Fiorentino, drove Zolli in his car to a hidden door, for every access point to the Vatican was guarded by the Gestapo. Zolli was presented as an “ engineer ” who had come to examine the walls being built. With the utmost seriousness, he approved the plans shown to him. Then he went to the office of Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione and told him :
« The New Testament cannot abandon the Old ! Please help me. As for refunding the amount, I offer myself as a guarantee, and as I am poor, the Jews of the entire world will help to pay off the debt. »
ANGELIC SHEPHERD, DEFENDER OF THE CITY
The cardinal was moved and went to see the Holy Father. He came back and asked Zolli to present himself before 1 pm : « The offices will be empty, but two or three members of staff will be waiting to hand over the parcel to you. There will not be any problem. »
Finally, in the afternoon, Zolli came back « to inform the Pope that the amount of gold needed had already been amassed, thanks notably to contributions from many Catholic organisations and parish priests ».
Himmler was asking for Jews to be killed, not gold ! Furious, he prepared a roundup (Judenaktion). The German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsacker, forewarned the Pope, who immediately ordered the Roman clergy to open the sanctuaries. « The rescue of the Jews had begun. »
The price set on Rabbi Zolli’s head was three hundred thousand liras. « The rabbi took refuge at Dr. Fiorentino’s home, then at Pierantoni’s, sometimes hiding with his small family and sometimes on his own. He spent many anguished hours asking the Lord : “ O Thou, Eternal God, protect these remnants of Israel... ” »
« My nights were like vigils », he wrote. At the end of his tether, he implored : « Lord, let me die with the others when and as You wish, but not as the Germans wish ! Have mercy on all men; have mercy on all Your children ! »
In 1945, the neophyte Eugenio Zolli would write : « Judaism owes a great debt of gratitude to His Holiness Pius XII for the pressing and repeated appeals he has made on its behalf; and even when these were ineffective, one can still say that he deserves our profound gratitude for his strong protests against the iniquitous laws and trials. However, this debt especially concerns the Jews of Rome, for their proximity to the Vatican made them the object of his particular care. »
Zolli writes that « the people of Rome hated the Nazis and they had an intense compassion for the Jews [...]. The Holy Father sent a letter which was to be delivered by hand to the bishops, ordering them to suspend the cloistered nature of their religious houses and turn them into a refuge for the Jews. I know of a convent, he continues, where the nuns slept in the cellar so that Jewish refugees could occupy their beds. »
On October 15 and 16, Theodor Dannecker, sent by Himmler, instigated a roundup with the SS. Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione summoned ambassador Weizsacker and threatened him with an intervention from the Pope if the roundup did not cease. Two hundred Jews from the twelve hundred who had been arrested were then released, and the operation of October 15 and 16 was never repeated. « On the whole, writes Fr Blet in his book Pius XII and the Second World War according to the Vatican Archives (Perrin, 1997), religious houses and institutes appeared to enjoy a mysterious immunity despite certain individuals who, for sums of gold, denounced Jews who lay hidden there. »
Suffering from cold and hunger, racked by anguish about the future, Rabbi Zolli saw himself rejected by his brothers : « In February 1944, the Council of the Jewish Community declared in a secret meeting that its Chief Rabbi had “ resigned ” and it denied him any financial support. The Zollis’ apartment was repeatedly ransacked by the Nazis and by looters; there was not even a handkerchief left. Dora, the eldest daughter, now married and a mother, had been fortunate enough to be “ aryanised ” along with her husband, and she now offered her father a more secure residence in her home. Miriam left to find refuge in an obscure village in the Abruzzi region and Emma went to live in a modest boarding house. But after two weeks, our “ wandering Jew ” was keen to resume his travels when Christian friends of Dora, Gino and Emilia, invited him to their home and asked him to allow them to adopt him as their “ Papa Giovanni ”. »
He writes : « The next day, invested in my new office, I had a small room […]. I was forbidden to show myself at the window because of the neighbours. From time to time, Emilia came to say hello to me; some-times, she left with a parcel : “ I am taking a little food to mother Emma : they do not have much to eat down there ”, she told me. Sometimes, she returned with mother Emma and took her back home the next day.
Finally, on June 4, 1944, the Americans entered the suburbs and on the morning of the 5th the entire city was occupied by Anglo-American forces. From the balcony of Saint Peter, Pope Pius XII blessed the jubilant crowd who acclaimed him “ Defender of the City ”. »
Re-established in his office as Chief Rabbi of the community as well as in his Italian nationality by the new military authorities, Zolli presided over the synagogue’s celebration of Yom Kippur, the « Day of pardon », in the month of Tichri, October 1944 : « It was toward the end of the day and I was on my own, in the midst of a great number of people. A kind of mist began to envelop me. [...] Near me, a candle had almost completely burned itself out. » As he watched this wavering flame, he thought : « My soul is like this flame. »
The evening gloom pervaded the temple as the rabbi’s two assistants finished the service, one on his right, the other on his left, and he remained silent. « Suddenly, with the eyes of my mind, I saw a great prairie and, standing in the middle of the green grass, was Jesus Christ, clothed in a white mantle; above Him, the sky was completely blue. When I saw this, I felt an unspeakable joy [...]. It was then that, in the depths of my heart, I heard these words : “ You are here for the last time. Henceforth, you will follow me ! ” I listened to them with the utmost serenity and my heart immediately answered : “ So be it, so will it be, so must it be ”. »
A Gospel scene, truly Lucanian : « Now, writes Saint Luke, it was the turn of Zechariah’s section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the ritual custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there. And at the hour of incense the whole congregation was outside praying. Then there appeared to him the Angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. » (Lk 1.8-11)
Rabbi Zolli’s vision also has many things in common with that of the Third Secret of Fatima revealed at the Cova da Iria on July 13, 1917, of which Sister Lucy provided a written description on January 3 of that same year 1944 : « We saw, in a light that is God [...], a Bishop dressed in White. » It was also Christ, as in Zolli’s vision, but in the person of His Vicar, as the three little seers understood right away : « We had a premonition that it was the Holy Father. »
« The sound of the Shofar, a ram’s horn used by the Hebrews in the desert to sound the end of this great day of prayer and penance, then resounded through the synagogue of Rome, situated opposite the Basilica of Saint Peter’s on the far bank of the Tiber. » (p. 98)
Back home, the rabbi listened to his wife Emma as she confided to him : « Today, while you were standing before the Ark and the Torah, it seemed to me that I saw Jesus Christ standing next to you. He was dressed in white and he put His hand on your head as though He were blessing you. »
Zolli made believe that he did not understand. Emma repeated what she had just said, « word for word ». It was at that moment that Miriam’s voice rang out like a “ little trumpet ” :
– Papa ! she exclaimed.
Zolli entered her room and asked :
– What is it ?
– You are speaking of Jesus Christ. You know, Papa, just this evening I was dreaming of the figure of Jesus, very tall and as white as marble, but I do not remember what happened next. »
So all three of them were witnesses. Zolli could no longer doubt the call he had heard in the depths of his heart. He resigned his post as chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Rome, then humbly asked a little known priest for instruction. On February 17, 1945, in the church of Saint Mary of the Angels, Msgr. Traglia baptised him. He chose Eugenio as his Christian name, in homage to Pope Pius XII who had done so much for the Jews during the war.
His wife Emma was baptised the same day, and added the name Maria to her first name. The next day, Fr. Dezza, rector of the Gregorian University, had them make their first Communion. A few days later, they received the sacrament of Confirmation from the hands of Msgr. Fogar, who was bishop of Trieste when Zolli was the chief rabbi there.
AS POOR AS JOB
He had said to Fr. Dezza : « My request for baptism is not a do ut des. I am asking for the water of baptism and nothing more. I am poor and I shall live poor. I trust in Providence. »
So much was this the case « that he was unable to afford dinner on the evening of his baptism, recalled Msgr. Traglia. I had to give him fifty liras. » A poverty as real as that of the heart : in October 1946, he entered the Third Order of Saint Francis.
« Jews who become converts today are like those in the time of Saint Paul, writes Zolli. They have everything to lose as regards their material life and everything to gain in the life of grace. » That is why, contrary to the deceitful allegations made by Sam Waagenaar and Jonathan Prato (p. 105-107), motives of self-interest had no part in the rabbi’s conversion : « When my wife and I embraced the Church, we lost everything we owned in the world. We must now find work; God will help us. »
Thanks to the Holy Father’s intervention, Zolli was appointed Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He gave lectures at the Gregorian University, published articles and books, including his master work Christus (1946) and a new translation of the Psalms along with a commentary (Milan, 1956). He began work on a refutation of Protestantism, The Confession and Drama of Peter, which would remain unfinished.
« Protestants contacted the recently baptised Zolli, offering him large sums of money if, by studying the Sacred Scriptures, he should manage to discover a justification for their thesis against the primacy of Peter in Rome. » The Reformed theologian, Oscar Culmann, offered him a chair at the University of Basle. He met with a refusal. With a force sufficient to unmask every pretence of “ ecumenical dialogue ”, Zolli explained why :
« Because to protest is not to attest. I have no intention of embarrassing anyone by asking them : “ WHY HAVE YOU WAITED FOR FIFTEEN HUNDRED YEARS TO PROTEST ? ” The Catholic Church was recognised by the Christian world as God’s true Church for fifteen consecutive centuries. And nobody can draw a line under those fifteen centuries and say that the Roman Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ without exposing himself to some serious difficulties. I can only accept the authenticity of a single Church, the one proclaimed to every creature by my own ancestors, the twelve Apostles who, like myself, sprang from the Synagogue. » (p. 109)
In this way Eugenio Zolli breaks the shadowy alliance between Judaism and Protestantism, bringing Judaism back to its imprescriptible office of “ witness ”.
One day someone asked the rabbi why he had renounced the synagogue and entered the Church :
« But I have not renounced it, he answered. Christianity is the fulfilment of the synagogue. For the synagogue was a promise and Christianity the fulfilment of that promise. The synagogue pointed to Christianity; Christianity presupposes the synagogue. So you see, the one cannot exist without the other. What I have been converted to is the living Christianity.
– Then, do you believe that the Messiah has come ? he was asked.
– Yes, absolutely. I have believed it for many years, and now I am so firmly convinced of this truth that I could stand up before the whole world and defend my faith, which is as solid as a mountain. » (The conversion to Catholicism of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, unsigned article, Documentation catholique, September 12, 1948, col. 1194).
Every morning he went to the chapel of the Gregorian University to hear Mass said by Fr. Dezza, after which he remained a long time in thanksgiving. He confided to the Jesuit : « I feel so comfortable in the chapel that I would like never to leave it. » He nourished himself on the Bible : « The same ray of light which can be seen in the vigorous words of Amos, he said, and is renewed in the magnificent words of Isaiah finally issues in the great light of the Gospel. »
Now, from the Gospel, no one can erase these words of Jesus : « You are Peter, and on this rock, I shall build my Ekklesia. » Zolli explains : « The Ekklesia must be built on a rock, a sort of natural fortress. And how could it be otherwise ? From the moment the baptism of Jesus took place and a voice from Heaven announced that He was Jesus Son of God, the gigantic struggle for the liberation of mankind from the power of Satan commenced. Jesus, assisted by the Holy Spirit, initiated the struggle. »
To be able to withstand the assaults of hell, the Church is built on unshakeable “ foundations ”. « That is why the Ekklesia stands on a rock », continues Eugenio Zolli, and this rock is given the name of Peter. « A stone, unless it be a cornerstone, can easily be dislodged; the same cannot be said of a rock. It can withstand any attack. »
PROPHET OF A NEW WORLD
One journalist wrote : « The most ancient Israelite community of the world warmed a snake within its bosom ». Zolli was happy to correct him, saying : « No, the snake was not warmed by the community, rather it was Jesus Christ who set him on fire. »
« Is conversion an act of infidelity ? » he asks himself in his Memoirs. His luminous answer sheds new light on “ interreligious dialogue ” :
« One should first consider what faith is. It is an adherence of our life and our works to the will of God, not to a tradition, to a family or to a tribe. » That is why God is at the centre of everything, not man :
« The convert, writes Zolli again, is like someone who has been miraculously cured; he is the object of the miracle, not the subject. It is a mistake to say of someone that he has converted himself, as if it were a personal initiative. Of the person miraculously cured, one does not say that he has cured himself, but that he was cured. The same must be said of the conver. »
That being the case, how can one tax with infidelity those who respond to God’s call ? Can God be divided against Himself ? No, if there is any infidelity, it is to be found not in the converted rabbi, but rather in those who stubbornly refused to imitate him : « As one might expect, writes the anonymous author of the article in the Documentation catholique, news of this conversion caused a great stir in Jewish religious circles throughout the world. The Jewish community of Rome vented their spleen. Overnight, the rabbi, despite the fact that he had previously been venerated and had offered his life for his “ flock ”, became for some an ignoramus and for all a heretic and a traitor. The synagogue of Rome decreed several days of fasting in expiation for Zolli’s apostasy and went into mourning as if he had died, while at the same time it denounced him as a meschumad, that is an apostate, someone struck by God, and excommunicated him. »
However, the latter faithfully continued to love those who had rejected him : « I continue to maintain intact my love for the people of Israel and, in my affliction for the fate that has struck them, I shall never cease loving the Jews. I have not abandoned the Jews by becoming Catholic. » (ibid., col. 1195)
Judith Cabaud tells how, shortly after his baptism, the new convert was received in a private audience by Pope Pius XII and took the opportunity to ask him to suppress from the Universal Prayer of Good Friday the adjective « perfidious » applied to the Jews before the petition asking for the grace of their conversion. The Pope did not say no, and in 1953 certain missals were permitted to translate the Latin sentence Oremus et pro perfidis judæis by « Let us also pray for the Jews who have refused to believe. »
The epithet perfidious may have been perceived as harsh, but it did express the specific unbelief of the Jews, and it would have been even more insulting to simply brand them « infidels » ! for they are the depositaries of a divine religion, the one true religion among all others, the only one revealed by God to prepare the way for the coming of His Son. That is why the Jews who refused to recognise and adore this Word of God in the Person of Jesus Christ, have truly shown themselves to be “ perfidious ” by turning the prophecies in which they had placed their faith away from their true meaning... It is certainly the right word, for it expresses the disloyalty of those who violate their faith in God’s plan clearly seen in the Sacred Scriptures, even going so far as to falsify the latter, as a careful comparison of the Qumran manuscripts with the Massoretic text reveals.
The extraordinary understanding of the Scriptures that was given to Israel Zolli, like a new Saul of Tarsus, and his faithfulness in responding to this grace, has opened before the Catholic Church « a door which nobody can close » : that of the conversion of the Jews, according to the Lord’s promise to the Angel of Philadelphia : « Now I am going to make the synagogue of Satan – those who profess to be Jews, but are liars, because they are no such thing – I will make them come and fall at your feet and admit that you are the people that I love. » (Ap 3.8-9)
The Holy Year of 1950 appeared to herald the fulfilment of this prophecy. After the terrible war, which lent an heroic character to the beginning of his pontificate, Pius XII conferred on the Church a prestige, a moral authority, an extraordinary influence strongly felt in Protestant Holland and the United States... The return of the « separated Christians » was felt to be imminent. That of the Jews as well. Zolli founded the Our Lady of Zion Association, a sort of third order of the congregation of the same name dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. « He organised meetings and gave lectures to enlighten and nourish the spiritual life of the newly baptised.
« During the summer of 1953, at a time when the number of conversions to Catholicism in Anglo-Saxon countries was on the increase, Zolli was invited to give a series of lectures on biblical subjects in the Unit- ed States, at Notre-Dame University in the State of Indiana. » (p. 114)
On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, one had every reason to hope, writes the Abbé de Nantes, that « the stream of individual conversions might widen into a torrent and then into an immense river, as a reaction to the mounting disappointment inspired by western materialism and the mortal threat of persecuting socialist atheism. » (Catholic Ecumenism, Preparatory Schema for Vatican Council III, English CRC no 29, July 1972, p. 4)
Eugenio Zolli made a powerful contribution to getting this movement going. Back in Italy, he dedicated himself to his job as a teacher and researcher : he gave lectures and continued to write articles. One particular episode in his Memoirs cited by Judith Cabaud engages our attention because it is like a prophetic figure, a tableau announcing the future in the style of the Old Testament prophets :
« He asked the Mother of God to cure his ill wife; then, forgetting his request, he was astonished when she was cured. “ I was assisted by Jesus and our dead friend, Father Birolo ”, the convalescent Emma confided to him. And Zolli suddenly remembered having heard Jesus’ very own voice saying “ yes ” to his prayer ! »
So it will be with the resurrection of the Church tomorrow. The miracle will be so striking that it will plunge the world into astonishment. Forgetting the years of their long patience and the many rosaries recited for this intention, the faithful will themselves be astounded. Zolli gives us an example of this perfect humility : « Every time I enter a church with the intention of asking the Lord for something, he writes, I forget to do it ! In fact, I forget everything concerning myself, and regrettably concerning others also, even though I have promised it. I am ashamed, but it is not completely my fault. I do not remember and I cannot help myself thinking that I am nothing in the face of the Lord who is everything. I should reproach myself, but how could I make reproaches to a mere nothing ? Maybe I do not know how to pray. That is quite possible. »
THE DEATH OF A SAINT
In Christus, a synthesis of his writings before and after his encounter with Christianity, « Eugenio Zolli is no longer content with making the connection between the Old and New Testaments, but, having set out his principles of exegesis in a chapter entitled “ The Nazarene ”, he passes straight on to the Gospel with this significant expression : “ Sufficit tibi gratia mea ” (“ my grace is sufficient for you ”), in this way expressing his state of mind, that of a traveller who has arrived at his final destination. His final chapter is simply entitled “ Gesù chiama ” (“ Jesus calls ”), as if the voice of Christ had once and for all drowned out the sound of so much clamour :
« Every word of the prophets, he writes, every word of Christ is full of heavenly harmonies. We do have enough love for that which is so close to us : the words of the Lord and our souls have so much to say to us, but we are distracted. We are near God and yet far from God...
« From afar, we perceive a voice, a divine message, and we understand it not. A Voice calls us from afar and we are unable to follow it. A ray of light invites us and we do not see it...
« In the silence of the solitary night, I hear a knock at the door of my soul. It is the Pilgrim whose call had gone unheard. He should have been my Guest. Perhaps He has left... I can no longer see Him. »
His entrance into the night forms the prelude to a saintly death : « Will the Lord gather the tears as yet unshed, the unresolved harmonies, the songs yet unsung ? Will He receive the tears of my soul ?
« I possess only what I have lost, only what I will never have, only what I regret. Though unworthy, it is all that I can offer the Lord. It is the best part of myself. »
In January 1956, he caught broncho-pneumonia, temporarily recovered, then relapsed. One week before his death, he confided to a nun who was looking after him : « I shall die on the first Friday of the month at 3 pm like Our Lord. » On March 2, he received Holy Communion as viaticum : « I hope that the Lord will forgive me my sins. For the rest, I trust in Him. » Another confidence : « When I feel the burden of my existence, when I am aware of the tears held back, the beauties that have passed unnoticed, I weep over Christ crucified by me and in me...
« I am dying without really having lived, for one only lives well in the fullness of Christ. We can but entrust ourselves to God’s mercy, to the pity of Christ who dies because mankind does not know how to live in Him. »
Then he went on talking, but he could no longer be understood. He was already on the other bank. At midday he fell into a coma and at 3 o’clock he gave his soul up to God.
Brother Bruno Bonnet-Eymard
Resurrection, nos 15 and 16,
March and April 2002