First Vatican Official Ever is Recipient of Conservative Congregation’s Good Neighbor Award

Msgr. Jorge Mejia, Secretary of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, was in Chestnut Hill, Mass. earlier this month to receive the annual Good Neighbor Award of Mishkan Tefila, a Conservative congregation whose Brotherhood established the award 25 years ago.

Mejia is the first Vatican official to be a recipient. The decision to honor him followed a visit to Rome last June by Rabbi Richard Yellin, spiritual leader of Mishkan Tefila, which included a meeting with Pope John Paul II. Yellin had first met Mejia a year earlier when both attended an international interfaith meeting in Boston.

The presentation was made in the presence of Boston’s Archbishop Bernard Law at the annual Good Neighbor Dinner December 4, sponsored by the Mishkan Tefila Brotherhood and chaired by Benjamin Lipson. The guests included Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, the rabbinical branch of Conservative Judaism in the U.S.

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE AWARD

Mejia, in accepting the tribute, underscored its significance when he noted that Vatican officials are seldom allowed to accept such honors. He read a letter from Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Commission for relations with the Jews, saying that the award shows that “something is deeply changed in the … relations between Jews and the Catholic Church.”

Mejia added to the members of Mishkan Tefila, “you have taught us how to behave toward one we want to consider a neighbor.” That observation was strongly seconded by Archbishop Law who said he had been “pained” by the recollections of anti-Semitism in Boston “because I assumed that some of the pain was caused by some who shared the faith and perspective that is mine.”

Yellin said, in his remarks on the occasion, “The dialogues between Catholics and Jews on a variety of levels, have created estimable alliances of outreach that has united us and given us a common agenda. This is the ancient Biblical metaphor, never being alone in the face of a threat, but encouraged to develop freely, independently, unabated, contributing to the common good.”

Yellin made available to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency a letter he received from Cardinal Willebrands several weeks before the presentation, expressing “great pleasure” at Congregation Mishkan Tefila’s decision to honor Mejia.

LETTER FROM CARDINAL WILLEBRANDS

“I see in this gesture of yourself and your congregation an expression of acknowledgement and gratitude for whatever the receiver of the Award has been able to do for your Congregation during your visit to Rome last June, and for Jewish-Catholic relations in general in the seven years that he has already been serving in his present appointment,” the Cardinal wrote.

The letter added; “I believe your gesture has a deeper significance. It is in fact not that frequent that Jewish Congregations anywhere grant awards to Catholic priests, let alone Vatican officers. Therefore, I cannot but feel that what you intend to do on December 4 goes well beyond the actual fact and person, or persons involved.

“It would mean that a Jewish community as a whole, your Congregation in the present case, finds it appropriate to acknowledge publicly that something has deeply changed in the field of relations between Judaism and Catholic Church and that this is worthy not only of academic or technical appreciation, but also of symbolic affirmation, in an intensely human communitarian context.”

Past recipients of Mishkan Tefila’s Good Neighbor Award include John Cardinal Wright and Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston; the then Sen. John Kennedy and all Governors of Massachusetts; and the present Speake of the House, Rep. Thomas O’Neil.

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