Last night (October 21, 2015) at the invitation of my great friend, Rabbi Jacob Luski, I had the privilege of joining with our Jewish sisters and brothers at Temple B’Nai Israel in St. Petersburg a reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s document on Catholic/Jewish relations entitled Nostra Aetate.
I have invited Rabbi Luski to present his reflections, fifty years out, next Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Jude at seven p.m. and I hope you might think of attending his presentation as he reflects on that moment five decades ago from his, Jewish perspective. Below is my presentation as delivered:
The 50th Anniversary of the Promulgation of The Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Church’s Relationship with Non-Christian Religions—Highlights and Ongoing Contemporary Challenges presented by Bishop Robert N. Lynch, Roman Catholic Bishop of St. Petersburg, at Temple B’Nai Israel, October 21, 2015
Among the many gifts that Pope John XXIII, now a saint, provided the Church via his call for aggiornamento, i.e., “renewal”, when he announced the convening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was his guidance in seeking a new disposition on the part of the Church towards our Jewish brothers and sisters. Pope John’s personal experiences as an apostolic delegate in Turkey from 1935-1944 informed his commitment to the Council’s statement on the
Church’s relationship with Judaism articulated in section 4 of Nostra Aetate, i.e., The Declaration on the Church’s Relationship with Non-Christian Religions, as did his visit with the noted Jewish historian Jules Isaac during the Council’s preparatory phase in 1960. Isaac’s presentation to the Pope regarding Christianity’s history of Anti-Semitism via its perpetuation of a “teaching of contempt” which suggested Providential punishment of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus—with the accompanying charge of deicide—as well as Christianity’s supersessionistic tendencies (suggestions that Judaism had been eclipsed as God’s promises were diverted unto Jesus and as Jesus’ teachings replaced/fulfilled the teachings and prophecies of Judaism) had a transformational effect upon the Pope who, in turn, utilized the Council as a means to move the Church beyond a teaching of contempt into to a teaching of respect.
Producing a Conciliar text on Jews and Judaism was a priority of Pope John XXIII and he utilized the leadership genius of Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J. (one of whose main advisors was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) and the Council’s Committee on Christian Unity to ensure that the question of the Church’s relationship with Judaism remained a focal point throughout the various stages and draft documents of the Council. Their efforts gave us Nostra Aetate #4 which, in turn, ushered in an attitude of respect towards Jews and Judaism within Catholicism.
(See Elena Procario-Foley’s, Heir or Orphan? Theological Evolution and Devolution before and after Nostra Aetate in Vatican II Forty Years Later edited by William Madges).
This new attitude of respect towards Jews and Judaism outlined in the seminal document we recall this evening outlined for we Catholics a new appreciation for Judaism which can be said to be nothing short of a conversion of heart, mind, theology and Church. Pope Francis recently stated that the document represents a definitive “yes” to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable “no” to Anti-Semitism. Nostra Aetate, in contrast to the historical attitude of contempt mentioned moments ago, acknowledged and affirmed that Judaism:
- Provides Christians the beginnings of our understanding of God’s revelation and Providential designs for the redemption and salvation of all people via the promises and word God spoke through the Jewish patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets
- Is the root from which Christianity derives its sustenance for from Judaism comes God’s promises and covenant…and for Christians it also yielded Jesus, Mary, the disciples and the apostles
- Has not been deprived of the call and gifts God issued to its people
- Ought not be charged with Jesus’ Passion nor attributed guilt associated thereunto
- Has not been rejected nor cursed by God in light of the Jesus Event
Additionally, these few paragraphs of such significance called upon Catholics to:
- Ensure that our teaching and preaching convey this new attitude of respect
- Oppose any and all forms of persecution and expressions of Anti-Semitism
- Engage in dialogues such as this very one tonight which seek to advance mutual understanding and respect between our two great faiths
With Nostra Aetate and its inspired renewal of our relations with one another as our springboard, may we now consider some of the advances that the Catholic Church has made towards a teaching of respect toward Judaism in the 50 years since its promulgation. These focal points are by no means exhaustive of the great work towards greater respect, understanding and reconciliation between our two faith traditions that has been made over the past 50 years but, rather, highlights which not only illuminate the progress we have made but also shed light on the challenges we still face:
Vatican Commission for Catholic-Jewish Relations (CCJR) and International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC)
1974 Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews Guidelines for Implementing Nostra Aetate
1985 Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis
1998 Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews Reflections on the Shoah
Each of these three documents produced by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews continues and expands upon the positive trajectory towards Jews and Judaism introduced by Nostra Aetate.
Each of the documents:
- Increasingly emphasize that Jesus, Mary, the disciples and majority of the early
apostles were Jewish so as to accentuate the Jewish origins of Christianity…
- Therefore, call for expanded dialogue and joint theological undertakings between the two faiths
- Repudiate characterizations of the Jewish people as Christ-killers with accompanying charges of deicide and/or suggestions that Jews are cursed by God
- Affirm that the Jewish people remain dear to God for the sake of the patriarchs/matriarchs and maintain that God has not taken back the gifts He bestowed upon the Jewish people nor His choice of them as His people
- Call for an appreciation of the liturgical links between the two traditions and cautions Catholics against liturgical aspects which might present the Jewish people in an unfavorable light
- Affirm the theocentric anthropology and commitment to social justice shared by the two faiths
- Consistently reject Anti-Semitism of any kind
The ILC has met regularly since 1970, drawing together the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (including participants from the World Jewish Congress, Synagogue Council of America and American Jewish Committee) together with the Vatican’s Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations in order to improve mutual understanding between the two religious communities and to exchange information pertinent to greater collaboration. A most significant outcome of the work of the ILC is a renewed understanding of the Church’s missionary and evangelization efforts which precludes seeking to proselytize/convert Jews.
Pope John Paul II
From his 1979 prayers at Auschwitz…to his 1986 visit to the chief synagogue in Rome (the first pope in history to do so and which spawned a life-long friendship between John Paul and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff)…to the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Israel in 1993…to his prayers for forgiveness offered at Yad Vashem and before the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000, the late Pope utilized his papacy to help build a new relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. John Paul II frequently referred to the Jewish people as the elder siblings of Christians, noting that the Christian relationship with Judaism is unlike its relationship with any other religion—Judaism is intrinsic to Christianity and to be ignorant of Judaism is to be ignorant of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples. Perhaps most powerfully, John Paul II consistently insisted on the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people—a covenant, the pope maintained, never revoked! The pope consistently affirmed the ongoing validity of the divine election of the Jewish people—an existence he attributed to a supernatural commitment.
Additionally, under John Paul’s leadership, the Bilateral Commission of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Holy See was established has met annually since 2002.
A challenge moving forward entails significant theological inquiry regarding soteriology— theology of redemption and salvation—in light of covenantal theology and Christology and understandings of God’s Word (Logos/dabar)…While the enduring nature of the Jewish covenant has been consistently affirmed by the Church, the Magisterium nonetheless rejects theological explanations which suggest that there are two distinct covenants—Jewish and Christian—which serve as equally viable means of salvation. Therefore the contemporary theological challenge is one confronted with the challenge of considering how Jews and Christians are united in a single covenantal relationship with God which is meaningful and salvific to both traditions from their respective experiences and convictions (Cardinal Kasper).
Moving forward there can be no place for any trace of former supersessionist, replacement or fulfillment theologies and the Christ Event cannot be used in any way which devalues Judaism.
Exclusivist covenant language cannot be placed in opposition to God’s creative and redeeming love which is universal in scope.]
(See Elena Procario-Foley’s, Heir or Orphan? Theological Evolution and Devolution before and after Nostra Aetate in Vatican II Forty Years Later edited by William Madges).
Pontifical Biblical Commission
The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scripture (2002) challenges Christian readers to appreciate the dignity of a Jewish reading and understanding of the Bible as well as addresses how Christians ought to address certain New Testament passages which convey anti-Jewish sentiments. This text expands upon Nostra Aetate’s directives regarding Church teaching and preaching to encompass each and every Christian’s responsible reading of Scripture thereby rendering an attitude of respect and understanding a duty incumbent upon every Christian to be assimilated into one’s own reading of Scripture and personal piety. Additionally, the document offers an appraisal of messianic expectations within Judaism acknowledging that the messianic character of Jesus was a possible interpretation but not the sole nor necessary interpretation of messianic prophecies, therefore suggesting that Jesus is not the only possible fulfillment of messianic expectations.
The challenge moving forward is empowering each and every person with the wherewithal to critically read, interpret and understand Scripture sensitive to issues such as context, climate, culture, respect for respective religious sensitivities, etc. Institutionally, greater sensitivity to potentially anti-Jewish sentiments in preaching (stereotypes of Scribes and Pharisees; Lenten devotions which may depict Jews as hypocritical; characterizations/presentations in the Liturgy of the Hours which are suggestive of Jews lacking faith), liturgical art, etc. is also warranted for what the Church prays is an expression of what the Church believes (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi). On the theological level there is much to consider in terms of messianism and eschatology, i.e., as God draws us all proleptically to His consummating designs for humanity might we all be drawn unto Him in ways yet made known? .
(See James M. Barrens’ In Our Time (Nostra Aetate): How Catholics and Jews Built a New Relationship; The Catholic and Church and The Jewish People: Recent Reflections from Rome edited by Philip A. Cunningham, Norbert J. Hofmann and Joseph Sievers and Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue by Edward Cardinal Cassidy).
Local Steps Toward Mutual Respect
Walking God’s Path
Closer to home we, too, have experienced the fruits of what Nostra Aetate began. Within the Diocese which I shepherd we have partnered with numerous Jewish communities to advance mutual respect and understanding by teaming with one another in parish/synagogue hosted considerations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Walking God’s Paths (2004) series which draws us together in order to realize Nostra Aetate’s instruction to dialogue and learn from one another. Walking God’s Paths is a six-session process to stimulate candid conversation between Jewish and Christian congregations. Produced by the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College on behalf and with the oversight of the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the series enables participants to experience each tradition’s understanding of how it walks God’s path and how the two faith communities could relate to one another in positive ways (See Walking God’s Path website).
The Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops together with The National Council of Synagogues USA and other Jewish bodies have worked together to produce over a dozen documents over the past 35 years alone—Uniting our faith traditions in efforts to promote peace, protect children and the environment, combat religious intolerance, end the death penalty and promote moral education within schools. (See the USCCB website).
A challenge moving forward is maintaining such grassroots efforts as the zeal and fervor of the Vatican II generation wanes. How do we continue to foster and promote continued dialogue whereby we authentically strive to enter into the experience of the other? How do we accentuate our commonly shared commitment to preparing for God’s Kingdom?
We must also broaden our dialogue to include other faiths and people of good will.
A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People
In 2008 the Diocese of St. Petersburg helped to sponsor the exhibit: A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People at the Florida Holocaust Museum. The exhibit illustrated the steps Pope Saint John Paul II took to improve the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people noted above, and reflected the continuing relevance of Nostra Aetate.
Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies
Together with my fellow Bishop from the Diocese of Venice, the late Bishop John J. Nevins, the American Jewish Committee and the Catholic University within our Diocese, Saint Leo University, the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies was established in 1999 with the mission of building mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation between Jews, Catholics, and all people of good will by providing opportunities for interfaith education and dialogue. The objectives of the Center are to educate the public on issues germane to both religions and to foster intellectual discussion, as seen from both points of view. Together in the spirit of the Hebrew Tikkun Olam (trying to repair/improve the world), the Center models and promotes tolerance, justice, and compassion in a world torn by strife and prejudice among religions and nations. These objectives are met through conferences, town hall meetings, interreligious dialogue, and gatherings of young Jews and Catholics sharing their faith together.
Over the course of the next 8 weeks the Center is sponsoring a series of events much like this one devoted to understanding contemporary interfaith challenges in light of the seminal teachings of Nostra Aetate. (See Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies website). Over 40 such centers now exist in the United States.
As the sun more rapidly sets on my privilege of serving my church in the five counties, I see God’s hand in my presence among you this evening. Twenty years ago this coming January 26th, Jacob Luski patiently set among an overflow crowd at St. Jude’s Cathedral for my ordination as bishop. He was among the first I greeted. He and JoAnn have had me as a guest in their home and at the one child’s wedding I was able to attend. When the moment arrived two years ago for the rededication of the remodeled Cathedral of St. Jude, I came here to learn from the master how to interpret the scripture passage from Nehemiah about the Temple and he taught me well enough that citing my source, I used his material for part of my homily that evening. I learned from him that one never answers a direct question if one can first tell a story.
Above all, he taught me how to be reflective, reconciling, and renewed in understanding contemporary Judaism in America. Little wonder that at my invitation he spent a morning with seventy-five per cent of my priests which they still remember with fondness and gratitude. For myself, he has been my Rabbi Skorka. Though our schedules often preclude many opportunities to meet and share, I will walk into retirement and eternity forever grateful to my personal rabbi and friend, his wife and family.
I think it appropriate that we gather this evening—not only to celebrate the gift that Nostra Aetate has been to our two faiths over the past 50 years and to consider the contemporary challenges which still confront us– but also as we look ahead in the midst of new leadership within the Catholic Church under Pope Francis on the eve of what he has called to be an upcoming year of mercy! Like both Pope John XXIII and John Paul II before him, Pope Francis is truly a people’s pope—a pope pastorally inspired to discover new ways and means to convey the love, mercy and joy of our God unto greater inclusivity and solidarity among all peoples. A jubilee year reminds us all of God’s ultimate sovereignty over all and calls upon us to surrender anew unto Him and His Providential designs. It is a call for forgiveness, new beginnings and humility before God and one another. It is a call to discover how we are to understand our relationship with one another through the lens of our relationship with the one and same God whom we serve. Towards that end, allow me to close with the words of Pope Francis voiced in his first apostolic letter which summarizes succinctly and well the attitude of respect that Nostra Aetate inspired 50 years ago:
- We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.
- Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.
- God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism. While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.