Monday, January 23, 2017

How dialogue with the Jews progressed under recent pontificates

The contribution of Francis’ two immediate predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI was crucial. 

But the roots of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews that is celebrated on 17 January with the special Day for Judaism and which was consecrated by Wojtyla and by his many gestures and words,  much deeper. 

After centuries of misunderstandings, humiliation, oppression in Christian Europe, the 20th century marked a change of course, which was undoubtedly triggered by the immense tragedy of the Holocaust.

Readers will recall the example of the famous phrase pronounced by a deeply moved Pius XI in September 1938 during an audience with a group of Belgian Catholics at a time when Europe was on the brink of war: “Anti-Semitism is unacceptable. Spiritually, we are all Semites". 


But it must also be recalled that two months earlier, on 29 July of that same year, Pius XI said the following words to his students at the Propaganda Fide College: “The whole of humankind, is a single, great universal human race. There is no room for special races… Human dignity consists in us being one great family, humankind, the human race. This is the belief of the Church." 

The message was heavily criticised by the German press and branded as being against the culture and dignity of Nazi Germany.

There has been a great deal of discussion and there will continue to be, surrounding the figure an choices of his successor, Pius XII, although current affairs journalism and historiography now offer more objective interpretations of Pacelli’s pontificate. 


Ideologically, he is presented as “Hitler’s Pope”. Without entering into the controversial matter of the so-called “silences”, there are many initiatives that could be cited here, which the Pope himself carried out or agreed to in order to assist and protect Rome’s Jews.

But it is also worth recalling that during high school, Eugenio Pacelli had become friends with a young man named Guido Mendes, who was a member of Rome’s Jewish community. He was the descendent of a reputable family of doctors and medical scholars that dated back to the physician to the royal court of King Charles II of England. 


The day after Pius XII’s death, Dr. Mendes, who at the time was living in Ramat Gan in Israel, told the Jerusalem Post of his friendship with the Pope , which dated back to their days at Liceo Visconti: “Pacelli was the first Pope who back in his youth attended a Shabbat dinner in a Jewish house and informally discussed Jewish theology with eminent members of Rome’s community”. 

In 1938, the future Pius XII, then Secretary of State, did his utmost to help the Mendes family, which had been affected by the shameful anti-Semitic laws promulgated by Italy’s fascist government. 

The cardinal arranged for their safe passage to Switzerland and from here they were able to emigrate to Palestine the following year.

Finally, it should be recalled that Pius XIIwas the first Pope after more than ten centuries who made small modifications in favour of the Jews to the liturgy. Ever since the pontificate of Gregory the Great, the Good Friday liturgy referred to perfidi Judaei and perfidia Judaica


The term “perfidi” in Latin means “misbelievers”. But when texts were introduced in the vernacular and in translation, the Latin term “perfidi” became “perfidious” in English, “perfide” in French, “treulos” in German, “trouweloos” in Dutch and “perfidy” in Italian, clearly suggesting moral condemnation. 

Pius XII, who was asked by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, to remove that expression, did not grant the rabbi’s request but had the Congregation of Rites issue a clarification on the matter, which was published on 10 June 1948.

Just over a year later, on 16 October 1949, Jewish professor Jules Isaac, who was received in an audience at Castelgandolfo, pointed out another problem to Pacelli. In the same Good Friday liturgy, unlike in other cases, when prayers were said for the Jews, the people and the priest would not kneel but remained standing. Isaac explained that “the omission of genuflection during the prayer for the Jews, was perhaps even more serious than the mistranslation of perfidus”. 


Finally, some years later, as Pacelli was reforming the Holy Week liturgy, he introduced the genuflection gesture to the prayer for Jews, as was done during other prayers within that rite. These steps, albeit small and hesitant, for sure, were nevertheless – as the then honorary consul of Israel to Milan, Pinchas Lapide wrote – “were the first improvements made in favour of the Jews to be introduced in the Catholic tradition since the Middle Ages and they opened the door to deeper and broader reaching changes”.

It was St. John XXIII, the Pope who stopped his car in front of the Roman Synagogue to greet and bless the Jews who were just leaving the temple, who definitively abolished the expression “perfidi guidei” from the liturgy. In March 1959, Roncalli decided to alter the controversial Good Friday prayer, removing the terms “perfidi” and “perfidia” from the text.


This led to other initiatives by the same Pope to remove other formulas and prayers that may have been offensive toward the Jews: from the reference to deicide in the formula for the consecration of the human race to the sacred heart of Jesus introduced by Leo XIII to those regarding “Iudaica Perfidia” and “Hebraica superstitio” present in the Roman Ritual, during the rite of the conversion of Jews for baptism.

The Council and the “Nostra Aetate”, promulgated by Paul VI,  marked the turning point. 


The text recalls that “what happened” in Jesus’ Passion “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”. 

It states that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.” 

Finally, it specifies that “the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

But that momentous change needed to be turned into concrete gestures. The turning point came with John Paul II and is tied to the Pope’s personal life story. The man who rose to the Chair of St. Peter was someone who experienced first-hand the tragedy of war in a devastated Poland. 


Having been born in Wadowice, a small town with a large Jewish community, he had forged many ties with Jewish schoolmates and playmates. Many of them later died in Nazi concentration camps. 

The question mark surrounding their sacrifice would torment John Paul II, who as Pope – as observed by Norberto Hofmann, Secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews – felt it was his duty “to personally commit to the development and intensification of the Catholic Church’s friendship with Judaism”. 

On 7 June 1979, Wojtyla visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and prayed before the monument to the Holocaust victims: “Before this gravestone, no one can remain indifferent”.

Even more significant was his visit to the Roman synagogue on 13 April 1986 and his embrace with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff in front of the Great Temple. The Holy See’s diplomatic recognition of Israel as a state at the end of 1993, marked a further step forward in relations. The “We Remember” document, a reflection on the Holocaust, was published under John Paul II’s pontificate, in 1998. 


In the penitential liturgy of the 2000 Jubilee, Wojtyla asked for forgiveness for the wrongdoings against the people of Israel. Just a few days after the liturgy, John Paul II visited the Holy Land, where he prayed before the Western Wall and visited the Yad-Vashem memorial, praying for the Holocaust victims and meeting some survivors. 

Frequent meetings started to be held with Jewish delegations both in the Vatican and during papal visits abroad.

With Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, came a theologian Pope who had meditated on the special and unique bond between Christians and Jews, more than anyone else. One of his first messages the day after his election, was addressed to Rome’s rabbi, Professor Riccardo Di Segni. Benedict XVI also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on 28 May 2006 and repeated the gestures of his rpedecessor during a visit to Israel in May 2009. Ratzinger visited the synagogue of Cologne in 2005, of New York in 2008 and of Rome in 2010. 


“Our closeness and spiritual fraternity,” said Benedict XVI in his speech at the Great Temple in Rome, “find in the Holy Bible in Hebrew Sifre Qodesh or "Book of Holiness" their most stable and lasting foundation, which constantly reminds us of our common roots, our history and the rich spiritual patrimony that we share. It is in pondering her own mystery that the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant, discovers her own profound bond with the Jews, who were chosen by the Lord before all others to receive his word.”

After these historic gestures and detailed theological study, the Church, under Pope Francis – who also has a personal history of friendship with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires – has entered the friendship phase, relations have thawed even further, as was demonstrated by the cordiality of his visit to the Roman synagogue in January 2016. 


One of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s most important texts before he was elected Pope, were his conversations with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka. During his trip to Poland in July 2016, Francis followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau: he chose not to add to the eloquent words already pronounced by his predecessors preferring instead to express himself with total silence.

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