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An Historic Meeting: Pope Commits the Catholic Church to Its Ongoing Relationship and Dialogue with

In an historic meeting held here on October 29–20 years to the day on which Nostra Aetate was adopted by an overwhelming vote of Vatican Council II — Pope John Paul II described the past two decades in Catholic-Jewish relations as “epoch-making,” and committed the Catholic Church “to this relationship and dialogue with the Jewish communty.”

The private audience held last Monday in the Apostolic Palace began three days of intensive examination of the state of Catholic-Jewish relations in North and South America, Western Europe, Israel, and Africa. Before the largest group of Catholic and Jewish leaders from across the globe ever assembled in the Vatican, the Pope affirmed in unambiguous language the following commitments of the Catholic Church in its relations with Judaism and the Jewish people:

* He called the “spiritual links” between Catholics and Jews “sacred,” saying that there is “a real ‘parentage’ which we have with that religious community (Judaism) alone.”

* Contrary to some ambiguous language in the recently-published Vatican “Notes,” he affirmed the permanent validity of Judaism, asserting that “God does not reject his people.” Instead, he proposed that the Vatican Notes “will greatly help towards freeing our catechetical and religious teaching of a negative or inaccurate presentation of Jews and Judaism” and will “help to promote respect, appreciation and indeed love for one and the other.”

* He urged that “anti-Semitism in its ugly and sometimes violent manifestations should be completely eradicated. Better still, a positive view of each of our religions, with due respect of the identity of each, will surely emerge, as is already the case in so many places.”

* In apparent response to the criticism that the Vatican Notes, issued on June 24, were inadequate in their treatment of the Nazi Holocaust, the Pope called on “Catholics … to fathom the depths of the extermination of many million Jews during the Second World War and the wounds thereby inflicted on the consciousness of the Jewish people.” He also added that Christians needed “theological reflection” on the meaning of the Holocaust for Christianity.

A TURNING POINT CITED

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman of Great Neck, New York, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), in his opening statement to the Pope, asserted that Nostra Aetate, the Vatican Declaration on Catholic-Jewish Relations, “marked a turning away from eighteen centuries often characterized by both misunderstanding and persecution, toward a dialogue” that has fostered “mutual understanding and respect.”

Speaking in behalf of IJCIC’s member agencies, Waxman underscored that after the Holocaust, “the creation of the State of Israel restored us (the Jewish people) as a factor in history,” and religiously and spiritually as well. He then told the Pope, “the Covenant with the Land (of Israel) established by the God of Abraham and his descendants endures, even as the covenant of the Torah abides.” In direct response to Jewish concern over the ambiguous treatment of Israel in the Vatican Notes, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Vatican Secretariat on Religious Relations with Jews, declared at the opening working session:

“It will be recognized on two points that may have seemed insufficient to some, that for the first time the Catholic Church, at the highest level, has told its catechists, its preachers and its teachers, to consider the religious link of the Jewish people with the land of their fathers as well as the existence of the state of Israel in the context of international law, and to try to understand the meaning of the Shoah, the Holocaust.”

In light of progress made in many parts of the world, especially in the United States, in Catholic-Jewish understanding during the past two decades, Willebrands said that given the Church’s clear stand against anti-Semitism, “it becomes every day more difficult to have it (anti-Semitism) linked with official, approved Catholic teaching. It may draw from other sources, secular or pseudo-religious, and this we have to assess carefully. But we all agree that it is another problem. And as we in the Catholic Church have a long experience of anti-Catholicism, coming from many sources, we can perhaps use this experience, as it has been done in certain places like the USA, to counter the anti-Semitic plague.”

‘A QUESTION OF FIDELITY’

Prior to this meeting, there was much speculation growing out of the controversy over the Vatican Notes as to whether the Vatican was “regressing” in its commitments to improved Catholic-Jewish relations. Cardinal Willebrands, who as an aide to the late Cardinal Bea played a key role in the drafting of Nostra Aetate, nailed the speculation on the head.

“The Godhead is behind the text of Nostra Aetate, ” he said, and “the changed relationship with Judaism is not a question of practical decision, however noble and high flung our motivations may be for that. It is for us, as Catholics, a question of fidelity to our vocation, a part of our response to God.

“This is why there could never be a question of drawing back from Nostra Aetate. There can only be a question about going forward,” the Dutch Cardinal stated.

At the close of the three-day meeting, the Vatican and IJCIC groups agreed to establish a joint steering committee to advance relations between Catholics and Jews throughout the world, with particular attention to be given to the deepening of knowledge and understanding on the part of Catholics about the meaning to them of the Nazi Holocaust and the relationship of the Jewish people to Israel.

Virtually all the Jewish participants concluded that this historic meeting has put the locomotive of Catholic-Jewish relations back on the tracks.

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