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Back Ground Report Pope John Paul Ii, the Vatican and the Jews

The consultation in Vatican City March 2-6 of some 40 Catholic and other Christian clergy and lay leaders who met to study the present state of Christian-Jewish relations was significant fora number of reasons.

First, this was the first time that experts in Christian-Jewish relations from throughout the world were assembled on an official basis under Vatican auspices to review the progress made in understanding between Christians and Jews on a global basis, as well as to probe means for dealing constructively with outstanding problems of a theological, sociological, and political character.

Second, the statement by Pope John Paul II before this conference in which he called for the abandonment of “any and all attempts to convert the Jews” is the first time that any Pope in the 1,900 years of the Roman Catholic Church has officially and explicitly proclaimed an end to the missionary pressures on the Jewish people.

The importance of that declaration is underscored by the Pope’s providing a theological rationale to the effect that “the special relations of Christianity) with Jews exempts them from being subject to the Gospel commandment to evangelize the world.”

A POSSIBLE TURNING POINT

That unprecedented repudiation of the traditional Christian mission to convert the Jews could well mark a turning point in the anguished 2,000-year encounter between Christendom and the Jewish people.

While addressed primarily to some 720 million Catholic people throughout the world, the fact that representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Eastern Orthodox, World Anglican, and World Lutheran Church bodies were present to hear the Pope’s statement cannot be without substantial influence in the attitudes and behavior of non-Catholic churches and peoples toward Jews.

Indeed, the WCC, representing world Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, is in the process of adopting a far-reaching set of “Guidelines for Jewish-Christian Dialogue” which similarly rejects proselytism. The WCC guidelines, in whose drafting I was privileged to participate in June 1981 in London, declares:

“Such rejection of proselytism, and such advocacy of respect for the integrity and the identity of all persons and all communities of faith are urgent in relation to Jews, especially those who live as minorities among Christians.”

Pope John Paul II also condemned anti-Semitism. We were informed that the Pope spoke in a warm and feeling way when he confessionally acknowledged “the terrible persecutions inflicted on Jews by Christians” and that “finally (these persecutions) have opened our eyes and transformed our hearts.” He then called on the Christian experts “now to be concerned about transforming … the misunderstandings, errors and even offenses” that Christians inflicted on Jews into “comprehension, peace, and reciprocal esteem.”

KEY AREAS WERE EXAMINED

In seeking to translate the Papal pronouncements into practical programs, the Christian specialists on Jewish-Christian relations then spent three-and-a-half days examining the following key areas in Jewish-Christian relations:

How the Bible can help Christians understand more accurately and truthfully contemporary and ancient Judaism; “the inalienable ties of Judaism to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people;” problems of theological differences; and images of Jews and Judaism in Catholic and other Christian teachings.

It will be some time before a full report of the Vatican deliberations will be made public, but it is now clear that the Vatican authorities with whom Jewish leaders have been meeting regularly every year since Vatican Council II have kept good faith with the Jewish people.

In October 1981 and again in December 1981, a group of Jewish leaders met with the Vatican Secretariat of State in Vatican City, and with the Vatican Secretariat for Religious Relations with the Jewish in Geneva. At both those consultations the Jewish leaders discussed their concerns over the rise of anti-Semitism, violence and terrorism — among other human rights concerns — in Europe, Latin America, the United States, and the Middle East.

The Vatican authorities listened attentively to the facts placed before them and promised that they would undertake a major effort to counter anti-Semitism, especially in countries where Catholicism predominates. This consultation, and particularly the Pope’s stirring and potentially historic address, is a gratifying response to our Vatican-Jewish dialogue, and augurs well for the future of Jewish-Christian relations throughout the world.

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