Seth Borg, a Rochester-area Jew, recalled hearing someone on a recent Jewish-Catholic pilgrimage to Rome refer to Jews as the "older brothers" of Christians.
"That concept was a new lens for me to look through," Borg said.
Yet friendship with Catholics was nothing new to him, he added.
"Growing up in Brooklyn, my friends were either Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic, and we shared holidays and occasionally religious experiences together — bar-mitzvahs, confirmations, etc. It was very normal for me to accept others’ religious practices."
Such acceptance may seem quite usual today. But as members of both faiths know, Catholics and Jews have a long, contentious history that preceded recent decades of formal reconciliation.
For Jews and Catholics alike, a significant moment came in 1965 when Pope Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate ("Declaration on the Relation of the Roman Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions"). The Vatican II document decried anti-Semitism and also condemned previous teaching that the Jews as a people were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The document also proclaimed that Catholics and Jews share a "spiritual patrimony."
Jews and Catholics within the Diocese of Rochester issued their own historic document in 1996 when diocesan leaders signed "The Rochester Agreement" with leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester and the Rochester Board of Rabbis. The agreement was crafted by area Catholic and Jewish leaders in the wake of the 1993 Basic Accord between the Vatican and Israel, establishing diplomatic relations between Vatican City and the state of Israel.
The Rochester Agreement — believed to be the first of its kind in the United States and a model for subsequent accords in other communities — called for cooperation between the diocese and the two Jewish groups on such matters as combatting prejudice and promoting education about each faith.
To commemorate the document’s upcoming 10th anniversary and other efforts to bridge gaps between Jews and Catholics, an interfaith group of 18 Rochester-area people — led by two of the agreement’s signatories, Bishop Matthew H. Clark and Rabbi Alan Katz of Brighton’s Temple Sinai — traveled to Rome Nov. 7-13 for various activities. Several of the trip participants had also journeyed together to Israel on a similar interfaith pilgrimage in 1998.
The Rome pilgrimage included a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI; a meeting with Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; and a meeting with Oded Ben Hur, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See.
The delegation also visited several sites, including St. Peter in Chains, a Roman church that houses Michelangelo’s statue of Moses; the Vatican Museum; the Jewish synagogue in Rome; and Pitigliano, a small town known as "Little Jerusalem," where Catholics and Jews have long enjoyed good relations.
Among the tour participants was Seth Borg’s wife, Roberta, another signatory of the Rochester Agreement and past president of the Jewish Community Federation. She noted that she was particularly moved when the Rochester delegation was twice announced to the thousands thronging St. Peter’s Square for the Nov. 9 audience with Pope Benedict.
"It was then that I understood how much this subject of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation means to him," she said.
Indeed, on Oct. 26, Pope Benedict had issued a letter to Cardinal Kasper marking the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.
"The Declaration has been the occasion of greater mutual understanding and respect, cooperation and often, friendship between Catholics and Jews," the pope wrote.
A little more than a week later, on the steps leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Rochester Jewish-Catholic delegation made those words a reality. Its members sat together on Nov. 9 during the papal audience, and some delegation members were in the front row of a seating area not far from where the pope had addressed the crowd. As the pope approached the seating area, Bishop Clark introduced him to Eli N. Futerman, president of the Jewish Community Federation, and Rabbi Katz.
"He has warm and comforting eyes and seemed very compassionate," Futerman said of Pope Benedict. "I did get to thank him for his efforts on behalf of Jewish and Catholic relations, and he warmly smiled."
Rabbi Katz also exchanged brief words with the pope.
"I said I was honored to be able to meet him and thanked him for continuing the important work of improving Jewish-Catholic relations," Rabbi Katz said.
Jane F. Napier, a board member of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, managed to yell "Nostra Aetate" at the pope as he shook hands with the audience members in the seating area.
"In this great sea of humanity, he heard, and you could see the response in his face," she said.
The next day, the delegation met around noon with Cardinal Kasper and in the evening with the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See. Both meetings drew favorable comments from the delegates.
Cardinal Kasper noted that much had changed in the relations between Catholics and Jews during the last half-century. He highlighted the fact that Pope Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, Aug. 19. There he met a local Jewish community leader whose mother was a concentration camp survivor.
"She never imagined her son would receive a pope," said Cardinal Kasper, himself a German. "Half a century ago, no one could imagine such a scene — a German pope in a synagogue. … It’s a sign that after a difficult history, reconciliation is possible."
Furthermore, the cardinal noted that the delegation was meeting with him on Nov. 10, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "Night of the Broken Glass." On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, and into the early hours the next day, gangs of Nazis roamed Jewish neighborhoods in Germany, beating and killing Jews and destroying businesses. Meanwhile, scores of synagogues were burned, including the one in Cologne that Pope Benedict visited this August.
Several members of the Rochester delegation marveled at the significance of their meeting with Cardinal Kasper. Futerman noted that his mother survived the Holocaust and his father fought for Israel’s independence.
"I never imagined the son of a Holocaust survivor and Israeli freedom fighter would be sitting with a German cardinal discussing interfaith relations," Futerman said.
Nov. 10 ended with the delegation meeting Ben Hur, Israeli ambassador to the Vatican. The ambassador noted that Israel and the Vatican are unique states since both are the "centers" of their respective religions, albeit in different ways. He credited the late Pope John Paul II for recognizing the state of Israel, and he also credited Pope John XXIII for his interfaith work.
Rabbi Katz said the delegation’s visits with Cardinal Kasper and Ben Hur gave him hope for the future.
"They confirmed that both the present and past popes have taken serious positive steps to heal age-old wounds and to foster deeper understanding among Catholics about Judaism," he said.
On that note, Deacon John Brasley, diocesan ecumenical and interreligious officer, said the trip taught him much about how Catholicism and Judaism are related, especially in such areas as liturgy and Scripture.
"To be truly Catholic, we need to recognize our rootedness in Judaism," he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Catholic Courier’s January monthly edition will feature several more stories about and photos of the Jewish-Catholic delegation’s trip.