Summary: “I am baptised with the water of repentance; but am I still baptised in the Spirit of God?”
At the beginning of the World War II, Israel Eugenio was the chief Rabbi of Rome. The Nazis occupied Rome in September 1943. The Nazi officer Kappler demanded 50 kg of gold in place of the Jews. The Jews feverishly managed to collect 35 kg. The chief Rabbi Zolli realized his helplessness. For the first time he stepped into the Vatican and begged Pope Pius XII: "The New Testament must not abandon the Old Testament!" By afternoon, the Pope got the remaining 15 kg of gold collected from the parishes of Rome. But Kappler took the Jews as well as the gold. The deportation of the Jews from Rome was fixed for 16 October 1943. Out of the 8000 Jews of Rome, the Pope managed to get 4447 Jews hidden in over 150 monasteries and parish houses, hidden against the threat of the highest punishment from the Nazis. Till the threat was over, they were provided with all they needed for survival.
The Americans freed Rome in June 1944. The Russians freed Auschwitz in January 1945. On 17 February 1945, in gratitude to the Church for what it did for his people at his request, the erudite Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, after 40 years of rabbinical studies, came to the Church of the St. Mary of the Angels and was baptised into the catholic Church. He chose the Pope’s name, Eugenio, as his baptismal name. He clearly said: “I join the Catholic Church in my undiminished love for the people of Israel and in participation of all the suffering that came over them”. That was one of the biggest scandals of Judaism, probably the biggest after the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza from the synagogue of Amsterdam.
Rabbi Zolli experienced the power of salvation from the wrath of an inhuman project. Not only the salvation of himself, but also the salvation of the people, for which he was responsible. It was an experience that bound him in body and soul to the hands of love that strectched out to him and his people in the face of loss, death and horror. He decided to belong to that group of people through whom they were given a new life.
As the chief Rabbi, in his commitment to God and to the world, he was surely not any less better – rather, much greater – than any average catholic, is clear from this gesture of his. He had the courage and conviction to break away from Judaism, while at the same time proclaiming his undiminished love for it, and enter the Church to embark to join forces with the mission of the Church of Christ. It requires a lot of humility, honesty and inner authenticity to do it. The experience of the saving action of God at work calls us and draws us to those through whom God works effectively.
John the Baptist was baptising people in the Jordan. Through this baptism, he called them to repentance. This repentance was a preparation for Jesus’ ministry of salvation. Jesus was the Son of God. He did not require a baptism of repentance. Though he was God, he wanted to identify himself with the sinful people, to whon he has come. And as man, he wanted to publicly confess that he belongs to God through the external sign of baptism. In him the power of God’s salvation is at work. The sinners have the possibility to become sons and daughter of God through baptism.