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I was pleasantly surprised recently to see two whole pages devoted to Vatican 11 in the Irish Catholic. It had seemed to me sometimes as if we had forgotten that amazing gift of God. However I was saddened also to see that the context of that great moment was omitted.

  1. The worldwide response to the election of Pope St. John XX111 was amazingly positive and (2) his decision almost immediately after to remove offensive references to the Jewish people from the Church’s liturgy and official prayers was also acknowledged as positive.

  2. The next big news – was not so universally welcomed however - this new “stop-gap” Pope, was planning to convene an ecumenical Council!

  3. Hot on the heels of that news then came the announcement that Cardinal Bea S.J. had been assigned the task of preparing a Statement on Judaism for this Council. Quite a stir followed. I couldn’t understand what this was all about then but when I sought clarification I was informed that this had never happened before - Judaism had never been a topic on the agenda of any General Council of the Roman Catholic Church !

Here in Ireland most people knew nothing about our new Pope - that he had been papal legate in Bulgaria during WWII and that he had saved thousands of Jews – (by issuing them with false baptismal certificates) or that he was known as a man who loved the ‘People of the Book’. But he was becoming already a public favourite inside and outside the Church. All (or nearly all) were intrigued and awaited with curiosity the ‘Statement’ that would eventually emerge in the Decree Nostra Aetate on the Church’s teaching on other faiths.

The Council began in 1963 and concluded in 1965. ‘Nostra Aetate’ (Latin for ‘In our Times’), is the title given to the Council’s ‘Declaration’ concerning the “Relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions”. ..The Declaration includes 5 statements, one of which - No .4 - deals with the spiritual bond linking the people of the New Covenant with Abraham’s stock.

It begins: “the beginnings of her (the Church’s) faith ....are already found among the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets ... the salvation of the Church was mystically foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage... The Church cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the People with whom God in His inexpressible mercy deigned to establish the Old Covenant... ‘NOR CAN SHE FORGET THAT SHE DRAWS SUSTENANCE FROM THE ROOT OF THAT GOOD OLIVE TREE INTO WHICH HAVE BEEN GRAFTED THE WILD OLIVE BRANCHES OF THE GENTILES “ ( Rom. 11: 17-24)...INDEED THE CHURCH BELIEVES THAT BY HIS CROSS CHRIST, OUR PEACE, RECONCILED JEW AND GENTILE, MAKING THEM BOTH ONE IN HIMSELF (Eph.2:14-16)

There was however, another story, predating Pope John himself, the story of the movement (begun outside the Catholic Church – that was seeking to bring unity between Christians of all denominations and recalling the prayer of Jesus “May they all be One as You Father in Me and I in You, that the world may believe that You have sent me”). The lack of unity had become so clearly an obstacle to the work of missionaries around the world that many were moved to seek a way of solving this problem. Approaches were even made to Rome but the reply invariably was something in the nature of “We will be delighted to welcome you all back”! Not quite the response that was sought.

Pope John XXIII addressed the issue with his flock in another way -as follows:

  1. “Go back to your roots”

  2. “Focus on what you have in common”

  3. “Read the signs of the times”

Many religious Orders saw this as a recipe for the renewal which all felt was needed. The focus for them became the roots of their own Orders .Perhaps there was some validity in that for a start. Then we were all happy to agree that as Christians, we shared faith in the same Jesus Christ. But sometimes here in Ireland it seems as if we had not yet faced the fact that the Jesus in whom we believe in is a Jew whose human roots are found in Judaism. Personally I admit that I hadn’t even adverted to the fact that we shared the Jewish Scriptures with ‘our separated brethren’ – the term we now used to refer to other Christians.

In 1984 the then very prominent Churchman Cardinal Martini, Archbishop of Milan, made the following public statement at an important meeting in Vallombrosa:

“I am convinced that a profound knowledge of Judaism is vital for the Church, not only to overcome the long-standing ignorance and to favour a fruitful dialogue, but also to deepen its self-understanding”.....he continued: “Every Schism and division in the history of Christianity deprives the Church of possible precious contributions, and this produces a certain deficiency in the vital balance of the Christian community. If this is true for every great division in Church history, it is especially true of the first great schism which deprived the Church of the aid which would have come from the Jewish tradition.”

Some years later (1993) he continued this thought, concluding “We have lost our Jewish roots, and this wound is still open. It is only by returning to Jerusalem that the Church will be healed.”

The Pontifical Biblical Conference expressed the same idea: “The wealth of Jewish learning placed at the service of the Bible, from its earliest origins until the present day, is of vital importance.” (18 – 11 – 1993).

Pope John died before the close of the Council and was succeeded for a short time by Pope Paul VI who continued to encourage relations with the Jews but whose pontificate was relatively short. Pope John Paul 11 - one of the youngest Popes ever to be elected, began his long reign then lasting right into the following century.

The new pope was often accused of not implementing Vatican 11. I listened to those criticisms myself until I began my study of anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church when I came to a totally different conclusion. Pope John Paul 11 devoted himself strenuously to implementing the Council’s efforts to repairing the relations between the Church and the Jews. One could say, in fact, that this became the great pre-occupation of his pontificate. I believe it is true to say that he missed no opportunity that came his way to further the cause of reconciliation.

I believe now also that we were the ones who were wrong - focussing as we did, on our own special interests e.g. collegiality, ordination of women, mandatory celibacy etc. etc. I suggest that all these interests were really secondary.

Everyone is in agreement that the purpose of the Council was ‘Renewal’. For Renewal to be real it must begin in the heart. I believe that this was why the Pope appealed again and again for ‘Repentance’ and reconciliation. In 1994 he wrote an Apostolic Letter, “Tertio Millennio Adveniente”, to the bishops, clergy and lay faithful, in preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000.

In this letter he spelt out the meaning of Jubilee in the Jewish tradition and all that it required of the faithful in order to be reconciled with God and to be prepared for God’s mercy and the joy and celebration to follow. The Pope was mindful of all the major conflicts of the 20th century but always placed emphasis on our dreadful failures in regard to the Jews.

Despite the fact that Ireland was at least 90% Catholic for most of the 20th century there has been no public act of repentance for its treatment of Jews during or even after the war. I was present on two occasions not long ago when a prominent member of the Irish Jewish community brought this up saying “This has never been addressed and it does need to be addressed”. I have also been asked by some of my Jewish friends why it is that Pope John Paul’s teaching has not percolated down to the parishes herein Ireland? I could only hang my head in shame. But what is the answer? Why do we continue to refuse to be reconciled with our Jewish brothers and sisters?

Because of our general lack of familiarity with Jewish Scriptures most of us are not acquainted with the fact that Jews believe that God in His plan of salvation has “appointed times”. Many however will recall Paul’s reference to the coming of the Saviour i.e . “At His appointed time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law etc.” Jesus also spoke of the need to read the signs of the times in the Gospel of Matthew.

Preacher of the Papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa speaks of his own conversion to Israel in his book ‘The Mystery of Christmas’ as follows: ‘during my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land...the first thing I realised while still on the way there was that, as a Christian, I could not remain prisoner of the political judgements the world was passing on Israel. I was obliged to love this people, because of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ. I should love them as Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the whole of the primitive Church that came from the Jewish world.

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