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First rabbi admitted to Vatican Library tells tales of Martin Luther

Updated: 2013-12-08T03:41:44Z


The Kansas City Star

So this rabbi walks into a coffee bar, see?

And he sits down and the first words out of his mouth?

“Frank stood me up.”

Frank, of course, is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of Vatican City-State, Servant of the Servants of God. Although he really prefers to just be called the Bishop of Rome.

This is no joke.

Pope Francis missed his Wednesday private appointment with Rabbi Herbert Mandl.

Mandl laughs it off. The week before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t get a papal chat, either.

Even with that little disappointment, Mandl’s 10 October days in Vatican City were beyond his hopes. The retired Overland Park synagogue leader had in his gloved hands original documents that shaped the world, not to mention that he holds the honor of being the first rabbi ever allowed in the closely guarded, 500-year-old Apostolic Library.

“It was the best intellectual event of my life,” said the adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst University — and it was made so, so much better when he realized that he had been granted, perhaps by accident, full access to the papal manuscripts well beyond the reach of his research.

“That’s when I decided to go for the gold,” he says. Such as Pope Leo X’s Decet Romanum Pontificem, the 1521 papal bull excommunicating Martin Luther, a founder of what would be the Reformation.

Luther had been upset at the Church’s selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sins, to raise money so the spendthrift Leo could continue construction on the St. Peter’s basilica that we see today.

Five originals of the excommunication document were made, he says. “The Vatican kept two; they knew (Luther) was going to shred his.” Luther had publicly cast his earlier warning into a bonfire.

The document is on Mandl’s cellphone now. (Taken from a copy; actually photographing the original hand-written page he held was forbidden. The rules have relaxed just a little bit, though; tablets can be taken in now.)

Another “Martin Luther Moment”: When perusing some German’s screed against the church that had been printed in Latin, Mandl was surprised to see someone had scribbled in the margins. He took it to the librarians to show them the defacement.

Oh, yes, they said, those old German words were Luther’s. “Pithy comments,” Mandl said, “like, ‘Right On!’”

And there were love letters written by England’s Henry VIII. “He signed ‘H Rex,’ which I thought was kind of cute.”

Mandl has been intrigued with canonical marriage law, both Jewish and Catholic, for decades; it was the topic of his doctoral dissertation. “After two or three hours of serious concentration” on his Medieval annulments, Mandl says, “that’s when I would stop and get the ‘candy’ ... the incredibly rare documents.”

He came back Oct. 30, impressed at the depth and high-tech security and modernizations of the giant biblioteca. One part is a bomb-proof bunker where the Vatican keeps things like the Codex B, one of the surviving Bibles in 4th century Greek that Emperor Constantine ordered.

Yes, it may take 45 minutes for your request to be retrieved, but when the document arrives, you have the quiet of the Reading Room, decorated in Renaissance style, in which to enjoy it. He would share with perhaps 30 others a space about the length of a football field, he says. “You can barely see the back of the room.

“I do want to go back because I just skimmed the surface. I have a standing invitation to return to the library within the next five years.”

One of the first things he will order is a 13th century annulment of a marriage involving some major players in German royalty. It was controversial, he says. “I had no idea the document even existed any more.”

That it actually did, he realized exactly 3 minutes after noon on his last day there. At noon, the librarians no longer handle retrievals. Bureaucrats are bureaucrats everywhere.

Such precision, however, is not shared across the vast Vatican City.

Popes grant interviews on Wednesdays. Mandl was offered four dates, but only one worked for him. While the way had been smoothed by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas up to this point, there was a troubling vagueness from the Vatican about exactly when and where Mandl should be.

The rabbi believes it has to do with the pope having not yet named a secretary of state to oversee such things. “I assure you (Francis) had no idea of what his appointments were. I didn’t feel so bad when I heard Netanyahu lost his appointment the week before and had to come back from Israel again.”

Actually, the Vatican had rebuffed an October suggestion that the prime minister drop in, saying such things are not done on such short notice. Netanyahu finally got his first face time with Francis early this week.

So Mandl is now batting .333 on his Vatican visits. He missed Benedict after connecting with John Paul II, shortly before his death. He intends to try again to meet “Frank,” the man who is shaking up the Catholic Church.

Mandl will be speaking of his experiences beginning around 11 a.m. today at Kehilath Israel Synagogue, 10501 Conser St., Overland Park.

Before Mandl rose from his Starbucks’ chair Thursday, he shared this rumor from the streets of Rome: Francis, who chooses to reside in a simple guest house in the Vatican, is thinking of converting the Papal Apartments into a soup kitchen.

Maybe it’s a punch line.

But if it’s not a joke, just remember where you read it first.

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to

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