Building good relations with the world’s Jews is a priority for the Catholic Church, according to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Such relations are "very much on the heart" of Pope Benedict XVI, whose concern about the issue echoes that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, the German cardinal said. He met Nov. 10 with members of Rochester’s Jewish-Catholic mission to Rome. Indeed, the cardinal noted, one of the earliest acts of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was his visit to a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, last August.
At the conclusion of their meeting with the cardinal, mission members presented him with a copy of "The Rochester Agreement" a groundbreaking accord signed in 1996 by leaders of the Diocese of Rochester as well as leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester and the Rochester Board of Rabbis. Believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, the agreement called for cooperation between the diocese and the Jewish groups on such matters as combatting prejudice and promoting education about each faith.
Cardinal Kasper has devoted himself to the kind of bridge building called for in the agreement. Since Vatican II, the church has firmly rejected anti-Semitism as a sin, and has also called Christians to remember the Jewish roots of Christianity, the cardinal frequently has observed. Those roots include a common patriarch in faith, Abraham, as well as the teachings of Moses and the prophets.
During his meeting with the Rochester Jewish-Catholic mission, Cardinal Kasper noted that a fundamental shift has taken place in the way the church relates to Jews since the 1965 issuance of Nostra Aetate ("Declaration on the Relation of the Roman Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions"). Alluding to that Vatican II document, which decried anti-Semitism, the cardinal noted that its spirit has permeated the church’s approach to such issues as proselytizing Jews. Today’s church welcomes individual Jews who make a personal choice to convert to Catholicism, but the church no longer actively proselytizes Jews, he said.
"The Catholic Church has no missionary organization or agency devoted to converting Jews," Cardinal Kasper said. "I think our way of relating with Jews is not to convert, but to have dialogue, to engage them to be good Jews."
During the past 40 years, Catholics and Jews have increasingly become more interested in each other’s faiths, he added, noting that "now you have Jewish scholars who write about Jesus." He also said it was important for Catholics and Jews to study Scripture and their respective liturgies together.
Cardinal Kasper said that much of the dialogue between Catholics and Jews has been focused on the painful past. While it is important not to forget the past, it is also time for Catholics and Jews to start working on a future together, promoting the values embodied in the Ten Commandments, he noted.
Mission participant B. J. Yudelson, chairwoman of the community-relations committee of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, said it was important for her to hear the cardinal’s comments on conversion.
"I considered that phrase, ‘without forgetting the past,’ vital to moving forward," she said. She noted Jews need to believe that the church has "sincere respect for us as Jews, as a people and a religion with a right to exist as we are, according to our revelation at Sinai."
"(O)nly when it is understood that our religion is complete and not just a first step that has been superseded by Christianity, only then can we move forward together to work together for a more just, peaceful world," Yudelson said.
Deacon John Brasley, mission participant and coordinator of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs within diocesan Parish Support Ministries, also said he valued Cardinal Kasper’s comments on the issue of conversion.
"I understood Cardinal Kasper’s comments to mean that those who practice Judaism are responding in faith to God’s irrevocable covenant," the deacon said. "There is no need for the church to convert Jews to Christianity to save them, because their Jewish faith is already salvific for them. This makes sense, of course, because God will faithfully keep the promises of salvation made long ago to the Hebrew people."
Father Joseph Brennan, a longtime leader in Rochester-area Jewish-Catholic relations, agreed with the cardinal’s assessment that it is time for Catholics and Jews to work together on issues of common interest.
"I am not sure that we will ever be able to say that we have adequately dealt with the past, but I do think that it is possible to try to understand and acknowledge the past, without always being bound by it," the priest said. "Both of our communities have immense problems to face in the present and the future, and immense opportunities, and these seem to me to be the big issue for us now. But that still does not mean that we should forget or dismiss our past relations. They are what has shaped us, and continue to be a part of who we are into the future."