In a mere six years, the Catholic Church went from praying for the conversion of "perfidious Jews" in its Good Friday liturgies to rejecting anti-Semitism and highlighting the belief that Christians and Jews share a "spiritual patrimony."
How this happened is a dramatic story involving three popes as well as several church leaders and thinkers struggling to mend relations with Jews, relations riven by centuries of mistrust and violence. It is a story that is far from over, yet one whose initial chapters offer great hope for the future of relations between Catholics and Jews, as well as for the future of relations between Catholics and people of all faiths.
According to various histories, in 1959 Pope John XXIII, who had been elected the year before, ordered the removal of the phrase "perfidious Jews" from the church’s Good Friday prayers. As a Vatican diplomat during World War II, the future pope had used his office to save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution and came into his papacy with an apparent desire to repair relations between Christians and Jews.
In 1960, he publicly expressed that desire when he greeted a delegation of American Jews with the phrase "I am Joseph your brother," alluding to the Scriptural reconciliation between Joseph and his estranged siblings. That same year, the pope directed Cardinal Augustin Bea, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to prepare a document for the upcoming Second Vatican Council, a document that would address relations between Catholics and Jews.
According to the writers of a "Frontline" documentary on Pope John Paul II, which was made for Public Broadcasting Service, a young bishop attending the council spoke forcefully for the church’s need to reconcile with Jews. That bishop was none other than the future Pope John Paul II himself, who would make outreach to Jews a hallmark of his pontificate.
The Vatican II document Cardinal Bea shepherded would not only revolutionize the church’s relationship with Jews, it also would change how Catholics viewed Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and adherents of all the world’s religions. Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in October 1965, the document was called "Declaration on the Relation of the Roman Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions," or Nostra Aetate — Latin for "In Our Time."
Nostra Aetate‘s Section IV on "The Jewish Religion" forcefully rejected anti-Semitism as well as the former church teaching that Jews were responsible as a people for the crucifixion of Christ. "(T)he Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God," this section read, adding that Catholics and Jews should engage in biblical and theological study together as well as "fraternal dialogues."
From Nov. 7-13, an 18-member delegation of Catholics and Jews from the Rochester area, led by Bishop Matthew H. Clark and Rabbi Alan J. Katz of Temple Sinai in Rochester, visited Rome to mark the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate as well as the upcoming 10th anniversary of "The Rochester Agreement" in May. The 1996 agreement was signed by leaders of the Rochester Diocese, the Rochester Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester. The accord pledged its signatories and their respective communities to combating religious prejudice and cooperating on such efforts as education about Catholicism and Judaism.
Roberta Borg, former president of the Jewish Community Federation and a signatory of The Rochester Agreement, called Nostra Aetate "a significant step forward in repairing a very damaged relationship." She added that Catholics and Jews must continue to work on practical ways of answering the document’s call to interfaith relations.
"Just as the Catholic Church in Rochester and the Jewish community in Rochester have worked together to forge an agreement of understanding, so too must others or (Nostra Aetate) will remain simply words," she said.
Nostra Aetate "opened the door for The Rochester Agreement," according to Deacon John Brasley, coordinator of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs within diocesan Parish Support Ministries. The deacon, a member of the Jewish-Catholic mission to Rome, said the Vatican II document represented "a complete paradigm shift in Catholic thinking."
"(Nostra Aetate) reverses earlier thinking and intolerance and says unequivocally that other religious faiths — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and others — contain truth and holiness that is worthy of our notice and our esteem," Deacon Brasley said.
Nostra Aetate acknowledged that people throughout the world perceive a "hidden power" that creates within them a profound religious sense. The document rejects religious discrimination and highlights positive aspects of the following believers:
Hindus: "They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust."
Buddhists: They realize the "radical insufficiency of this changeable world" and teach a way by which people "in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination."
Muslims: The Catholic Church regards them with "esteem"; notes that they adore the one God, as well as the fact that they revere both Jesus (although as a prophet, not as God) and Mary; and seek to live a moral life. The church also acknowledges that quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Catholics and Muslims over the centuries, and urges both groups to "forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding … as well as peace and freedom."
The document also notes that "other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is holy and true in these religions."
On Dec. 7, participants in the Jewish-Catholic mission to Rome, as well as various Rochester-area representatives of Christian and non-Christian faiths, gathered at Nazareth College in Pittsford to celebrate Nostra Aetate and its impact on interfaith relations. Among the speakers was Joseph Kelly, professor of religious studies at Nazareth College in Rochester, one of the people who helped draw up The Rochester Agreement.
Nostra Aetate did not come about without some difficulty, the professor noted. For example, some Arab bishops were concerned that a declaration on the Jews would be taken as a sign of the Holy See’s support for the State of Israel. Meanwhile, some Africans wanted more specific references in the document to animism, whose believers acknowledge the existence of spirits. However, the document’s final draft was approved overwhelmingly by the church’s bishops, Kelly said.
According to several histories and commentators, Nostra Aetate was generally received positively by believers of other religions, with some reservations. For example, some critics believed the document should have been more specific about the role of Christian anti-Semitism in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, Nostra Aetate proved that the Catholic Church could change for the better and was responsive to the Holy Spirit, Kelly said.
"(T)he Catholic Church was facing up to the fact that God was working in the rest of the world," he said.