Over the past 10 years, Catholics and Jews from the Rochester area have walked the Holy Land and Rome together; attended each others’ religious services; shared an audience with Pope Benedict XVI; and taught each other about the one God they both worship.
A great deal of this sharing has occurred because of The Rochester Agreement, signed May 8, 1996, by Bishop Matthew H. Clark of the Diocese of Rochester; Rabbi Alan J. Katz of the Rochester Board of Rabbis; and Roberta M. Borg, then-president of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester. The agreement committed the three signatories and their communities to respond publicly to "acts of religious, racial, ethnic and any other kind of intolerance by publicly denouncing such acts."
The agreement also called on Catholics and Jews to cooperate in efforts to educate the wider community about each other’s faith, as well as in efforts to provide various services to the wider community. Since the agreement’s signing, those educational efforts have included study groups of Catholic and Jewish clergy and educators; Catholic and Jewish educators presenting classes on their faiths together; and interfaith pilgrimages by Catholics and Jews to Israel in 1998 and to Rome Nov. 7-13.
When the agreement was signed at Rochester’s Strong Museum, Bishop Clark told onlookers that they were present for a "truly historic breakthrough" that had its roots in the church’s decision to break with its past during Vatican II and mend its relations with Jews.
"Through hard work and patience, we are slowly, sometimes painfully, knocking down the barriers which have for so long divided us," he said.
Also at the signing, Rabbi Katz remarked that the agreement called for Catholics and Jews to recognize one another.
"I ask no one to become like me, to take on my beliefs and practices," he said. "But I hope that when you will see how I will live my life, you will recognize and understand the context in which it is framed."
The Rochester Agreement is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States between a Catholic diocese and its neighboring Jewish community, and "has provided a solid basis for the ongoing relationship between our two communities," according to Father Joseph Brennan, who worked on the document.
In a brief history he wrote about the agreement’s development, Father Brennan explained that the document was created in the wake of the Holy See’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel. The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel removed one of the greatest obstacles to Catholic-Jewish dialogue, the priest wrote, noting the euphoria with which the accord was greeted by Catholics and Jews involved in interfaith dialogue.
"There was a general sense of excitement and gratitude for the breakthrough … and for the knowledge that future Jewish-Catholic dialogue would at last be unencumbered by the issue of the church’s nonrecognition of Israel," he wrote.
Representatives of the Rochester diocese and the Jewish community began meeting monthly in June 1994 to work on their own agreement, which represented both communities’ shared convictions as well as some compromises, Father Brennan wrote. Since the word "covenant" has strong religious overtones, for example, the representatives eventually settled on using the word "agreement" as the name of the document they were creating. Father Brennan noted that task-force discussions were cordial and that most delays in drawing up the agreement were due more to "organizational bottlenecks" than to a lack of commitment to the process by either Catholics or Jews.
"It was lots of fun, very rewarding, and we all learned a lot in the process," Father Brennan said after returning to Rochester from the Jewish-Catholic mission to Rome. Nonetheless, Father Brennan added that working together with Jews over the past several decades has enriched his understanding of the Jewish origins of Christianity.
"It’s like learning about your family tree, learning about your ancestors," he said. "In the process you learn more about yourself."
Borg said the agreement meant Catholics and Jews had recognized each others’ similarities and differences. On that note, Borg’s husband, Seth, added that the premise of the agreement was mutual respect.
"Every time we talk about the agreement, and every time we travel together and share a meal together, we reinforce the premise of mutual respect that is at the heart of the understanding," he said.