December 1, 2005
On August 19, 2005, during World Youth Day in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI became the second Pope to visit a synagogue. He entered the Cologne synagogue. With hands clasped in prayer, he stood quietly before a memorial to the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany during World War II -- 11,000 of them from Cologne. In his remarks, the Pope said, "In the 20th Century, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry." The Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology. Yet this loathsome act of gross inhumanity fed off the prejudices in the hearts of some Christians.
The Holocaust during World War II horrifies the civilized world. It still shouts out for an end to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. “Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to hear their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale. We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail” (Pope John Paul II in the Mausoleum of Yad Vashem, March 23, 2000).
Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council published a three-page document. The document,
Nostra Aetate (
In Our Times), undermined the long-established patterns of suspicion and prejudice. And today we are experiencing its effects. We witness a change in attitude and a strong desire to tear down the blood-stained walls.
Aetate “…decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (no. 5). The Declaration has led to greater understanding and respect. It has opened a dialogue on theology and history. It has placed us in a position of friends seeking the truth.
From ancient times, many Christian scholars, such as Jerome, learned Hebrew so as to read the Bible in its original language. They turned to the rabbis to learn their teachings. The most learned never forgot that the Scriptures were received from the Jews and that even prior to the written Scriptures, divine revelation, the source of salvation, was given to the family of Abraham. Speaking to the Samaritan woman, Jesus himself says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:21-23).
Yet the relationship between Christians and Jews has not been without scars. When the Jamnia Assembly in the year 90 expelled Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah from the synagogue, there was tension. When Constantine granted the Christians a tolerance and Christianity was on its way to becoming the religion of the Empire, there was more tension. Some Christians (e.g. Hippolytus, Origen, Melito of Sardis) began to see themselves as the replacement of the Jewish people. A theory of substitution was elaborated by some Church Fathers. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Jews were segregated into ghettoes. And in the 13-15th centuries, they were expelled from European countries. At times attitudes hardened into hatred and tensions gave way to violence.
Beyond the irrefutable obligation we have to respect the dignity of every individual and race, there is a special bond that attaches us to the Jewish people.
Nostra Aetate solemnly declares that "the Jews remain very close to God [...] since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.” Thus it has widened our spiritual vision to encompass our common roots in the rich heritage of faith that believes in God who enters covenant with his people. Nonetheless, honest dialogue will acknowledge that “we are two distinct faith communities. There are [indeed] fundamental questions on which we are unable to agree and we must respect the partner's conscience on such questions” (Cardinal Cassidy, at the Annual General Meeting of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel, March 13, 2001.)
When Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986, he voiced the essential attachment we have with Jews. He said to those in attendance, “With Judaism, we have a relationship that we do not have with other religions. You are our dearly beloved brothers; in a certain way, indeed, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” As Catholics, therefore, we are committed to continue a theological dialogue between the Jewish community and ourselves. We worship the same God, accept the same commandments given to Moses, uphold the sanctity of all human life and the dignity of every human person, and long for a world where justice gives way to peace.
Professor Karen Howard of Boston College recently posed this question, “Why… did one group of ordinary middle-class men with families and businesses … in Hanover, Germany become one of the deadliest execution battalions in the Third Reich, while another group of people in a French parish community create a safe haven of their whole town for the Jews?”(Karen L. Howard, Forty Years after
Nostra Aetate, April, 2005). What made the village of
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon hide and protect approximately 5000 Jews, a number equaling its own population?
The answer to this question is hardly academic. Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the Sudan. The world has turned a deaf ear to the cry "never again, never again." And today the stakes are too high not to listen. Our dialogue with our elder brothers can truly hasten the day when the words of Isaiah take flesh, “In the last days…many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is 2:2-4).