For the 11th year, Catholics and Jews gathered together for a special joint Hanukkah celebration that has become a unique San Antonio tradition.
On Dec. 13, about 500 members of both faiths filled the tables at San
Fernando Cathedral’s AT&T Community Centre, welcomed by San
Fernando’s rector, Father Tony Vilano, to “this Hanukkah celebration
that has been going strong every year,” with Alice Viroslav, president
of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, extending a “happy Hanukkah to
our Jewish friends and Merry Christmas to our Christian friends.”
A choral presentation of Hanukkah songs by the Providence High School
Choir, led by Elaine Bir, was followed by Archbishop Gustavo
García-Siller’s opening prayer asking God that “the flame of these
candles always shine brightly so that we may see a glimpse of your glory
in each other.” Father Vilano noted that honorary chairpersons for the
event were Msgr. Lawrence Stuebben, Sister Charlene Wedelich, CDP,
Charles Martin “Marty” Wender and Robert Aguirre.
Msgr. Stuebben, in introducing guest speaker Wender, related that when
he and Sister Charlene were asked to serve as coordinators for the San
Antonio visit of Pope John Paul II 26 years ago, no one — themselves
included — had any idea how to go about such an unprecedented
undertaking here. They learned the visit was to include an outdoor Mass
and San Antonio’s largest facility at the time was Alamo Stadium, which
could only hold 25,000 people. A crowd of 500,000 was expected.
There was a recession going on at the time, Msgr. Stuebben recalled,
and they quickly learned in making land inquiries that they were talking
with owners from as far away as Chicago and Switzerland. The pontiff
was coming in September of 1987, and by December of 1986 they still did
not have a location in place for the Papal Mass.
“You can imagine that we were getting pretty nervous,” he said, “and
then word came to me that a certain guy named Martin Wender, whom I
didn’t know, thought that he could help us.” The coordinators went to
his office and soon learned Wender was a man who “doesn’t beat around
Msgr. Stuebben remembers Wender telling his lawyer, “I want this to
happen,” and within a week papers were signed for use of 144 acres in
Westover Hills, with Wender’s people clearing the land, using planes to
seed the field and taking papal visit coordinators for other U.S. cities
on helicopter rides to show them what the San Antonians were doing in
“We ended up having the largest Mass of major cities in the United
States,” noted Msgr. Stuebben, with 350,000 persons attending. “It was a
fantastic experience, the visit,” he said, “and he (Wender) was right
at the heart of it.”
Wender noted that he originally had not gotten involved when he heard
that the archdiocese was looking for land for the papal Mass, feeling
sure there would be a land owner “to whom this would mean the world.”
When no one stepped forward though and his secretary announced one day
that two priests and a nun were there to talk with him, he found himself
involved — especially after learning that if a place for the Mass could
not be found within a week, the Mass would be moved to Houston. Not
wanting the people of San Antonio to lose this significant event, he
showed the coordinators several potential locations, the site was chosen
and they were off and running.
A TV reporter’s comment that a Jew was donating the land for a Catholic
Mass led to its being referred to as an ecumenical event, and Wender
recalled Jewish schools being let out to take part in the papal visit.
The most important factor that came out of all this, he noted, was the
special relationship of the two faiths coming together out of love and
respect for one another.
Wender then shared why the Jewish people were so fond of Pope John Paul
II. Quoting from Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Stahl’s tribute to Pope John
Paul II, given at Temple Beth-El at the time of the Pope’s death, Stahl
had noted that while the great synagogue of Rome is located only two
miles from the Vatican, no Pope had ever set foot in it until John Paul
II in 1986. When he did, “he hugged the rabbi as if he were family,”
Stahl related — one of the pontiff’s numerous gifts that put an end to a
past history of hostility by the church toward Judaism.
Noting the Pope’s consistently demonstrating extraordinary compassion
and understanding towards Jews, Stahl had then pointed out the Pope’s
having close Jewish friends when growing up in Poland. Pope John Paul II
had also experienced firsthand the horrors of the Nazi terror, and a
holocaust survivor had related that in 1945, as a starved 13-year-old
just liberated from a Nazi death camp, she was sitting on street corner
too weak to walk when the future pontiff, then-Father Karol Wojty?a, a
parish priest, brought her hot tea with bread and cheese. Learning she
wanted to go to Krakow but was too weak to walk, she reported the priest
hoisted her onto his shoulders and carried her three to four miles.
The Pope further showed his compassion for the Jews when he refused to
baptize a Jewish child who had been given for safekeeping to a Catholic
couple by parents who had gone to their death in a concentration camp.
When questioning the child’s guardians, Father Wojtyla learned the
parents had requested that, should they not return, the child be told of
his Jewish origins and returned to the Jewish people.
“John Paul forcibly rejected the pre-Vatican II view that Judaism was
obsolete,” noted Wender. “He insisted the Jews are irrevocably the
beloved of God. He spoke eloquently about close ties with Judaism and
Christianity.” This was further seen in his empathy praying at a
monument honoring Jewish martyrs at Auschwitz and in the moving prayer
he placed between the stones in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
In the words of Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress,
Wender said in closing, “Pope John Paul II fundamentally changed two
thousand years of a legacy between the Church and the Jewish people.”
Wender added, “Our hope is that we all honor that legacy by building on
it for future generations.”
Rabbi Leonardo Bitran of Congregation Agudas Achim, filling in for the
ailing Rabbi Emeritus Samuel M. Stahl of Temple Beth-El and Rabbi Aryeh
Scheinberg of Rodfei Sholom, noted he considered Wender’s explanation of
the Pope’s visit a miracle in the sense that a miracle is “when we do
something ourselves first, before we pray to God for help,” such as took
place in the parting of the waters for the early Israelites. Calling
the day’s celebration “a phenomenal, phenomenal example of camaraderie
among religions,” Rabbi Bitran performed a blessing in Hebrew over the
Hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah), followed by the blessing given in
English by Father Vilano.
After Rabbi Bitran and Father Vilano’s lighting of the shamash or
“helper” candle, the following Catholic/Jewish pairs stepped forward to
light the Hanukkiah’s eight candles: Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller
and Rabbi Bitran; Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú and Richard Alterman;
Sister Margaret Doyle, CSB, and Joy Cutler; Father Richard Wosman, SM,
and Leslie Komet Ausburn; Msgr. Michael Yarbrough and Andy Fagen; Msgr.
Lawrence Stuebben and Robbie Jalnos; Sister Kathleen Coughlin, CCVI, and
Josh Sutin; and Mona Mengler and Elliot Weser.
Rabbi Crystal noted that in Jerusalem, after the lights of Hanukkah are
kindled at the Western Wall, people find their way home, first by the
menorahs lit outside homes in the Jewish quarter and then, in the
Christian/Armenian quarter, by the lights of Christmas trees.
“It is truly a miracle to see the way that light brings us together and
unifies our world,” he said. Thanking God for all the miracles of the
season and the miracle of San Antonio’s interfaith community, he added,
“May we be inspired by the legacy of Pope John Paul II to see the
miracles all around us, know that we are partners with you in caring for
each and every living being as a child of God.”