PITTSFORD — While the groundwork for improving Catholic-Jewish relations was laid out in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, Pope John Paul II showed Catholics how to live out the points the document addressed, according to a speaker at the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness Institute.
During the first workshop on the first day of the Aug. 24-26 institute, Father Dennis McManus — a visiting assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University who also works for the Vatican’s Liturgical Commission for the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments — explained the document and Pope John Paul’s actions to further Catholic-Jewish relations. The institute, which offered a series of workshops about the relationship between Catholics and Jews, was held at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
In the “Introduction to the Catholic Church, Jews and Judaism” session, Father McManus also spoke about how Pope John Paul II’s visionary thinking breathed life into Nostra Aetate, which is Latin for “In Our Time.”
The document served as the starting point for improved relations between Catholics and Jews, as it laid out four points that tried to address the religious basis of anti-Judaism, Father McManus noted.
The first was that the church rejects the idea of the collective guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus, he said. The second point was that the church accepts the validity of God’s covenant with the Jews.
“We respect and honor that covenant,” he added. “Even as the Christian finds the fullest experience in Christ, it does not eliminate validity in Mosaic law.”
Nostra Aetate also states that God does not regard Jews with contempt and they remain his chosen people, and that anti-Semitism is racist as a philosophy and has no place in Christianity, Father McManus said.
Pope John Paul II’s theatrical background helped him in the public implementation of Nostra Aetate, he added. The pope apologized for any violence done against the Jews and wrote out a prayer that he placed in the Western Wall of Jerusalem. That wall is all that remains of the second temple built by the Jews under King Herod, explained the ADL’s Rabbi Eric Greenberg in another presentation Aug. 24.
“It was astounding,” Father McManus said of Pope John Paul’s actions. “He was the first (pope) in the modern period to establish full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. He tried to reconcile the Catholic Church with Jews and Judaism. It was incredible.”
As the church has been working diligently to address the sins of its members against Jews, it nonetheless moves slowly as an institution, Father McManus noted. And its actions may never be enough for some people of faith, as he recounted an incident from a class he taught at Georgetown about interreligious art.
On the first day of class, he asked students to write on the board their definitions of the three major religions. Father McManus defined a Christian as a “follower of Jesus, a Jew.”
The Catholic students were mainly concerned about whether the material would appear on an exam, he joked, while many of the Protestant students were surprised at the Jewishness of Jesus. But one girl, who was Jewish, stood up and stated that she was offended by his definition of a Christian and asked him to erase it from the board. She argued that Jesus was never a Jew and how dare Christians make such a statement when they have persecuted Jews for 2,000 years, Father McManus added. The priest said he explained to her that history is pretty clear about Jesus’ ancestry. He also clarified the exercise’s purpose, which also was in line with the Bearing Witness Institute workshops.
“My job is to make you think, to change you,” he stated.
The institute’s opening day also included a presentation on Jewish history by Rabbi Greenberg and a joint reading of the New Testament led by Rabbi Greenberg and Father McManus.
Knowledge of each other’s history and important holy days are keys to mutual respect, workshop participants said.
Belinda Brasley, who is a youth minister at Sacred Heart Cathedral, said the path to peace begins with understanding and appreciating the beliefs of others.
“It’s good to remember that the church moves slowly, and we’re moving in the right direction,” she added. “It takes time to change people’s minds, but I’m excited to be part of the change.”