When news broke last year that Pope Benedict XVI was reviving an ancient prayer for the conversion of the Jews, the reaction in Jewish circles was outrage tempered by confusion.
Communal leaders warned that the move would deal a serious blow to the four decades of progress in Jewish-Catholic relations following Nostra Aetate — the landmark document that absolved the Jews of collective guilt for the killing of Jesus — unless the pope clarified how the prayer meshed with Catholic doctrine.
Last week, as the pope was preparing to visit the United States, that clarification finally arrived — sort of.
In a statement issued through the Vatican secretary of state, the pope assured that the prayer in the Latin, or Tridentine, Mass “in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church’s regard for the Jews.” He also reaffirmed that Nostra Aetate “presents the fundamental principles” guiding Catholic relations with the Jewish people.
But as several Jewish organizations were quick to note, the document failed to expressly reject proselytizing — the precise issue that had generated so much unease. Nor did it explain how the normally doctrinaire pontiff reconciled Nostra Aetate’s ecumenical spirit with a prayer for Jewish salvation.
It is against this backdrop that Pope Benedict will arrive for a six-day visit to the United States next week — a visit that not only will feature the official meetings and stadium appearances typical of papal visits, but also an unprecedented outreach effort to the American Jewish community.
On April 18, the day before Passover, the pope will make his first visit to an American synagogue, where he will offer holiday greetings at the Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The day before, at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, he will address leaders of five faiths — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Jain — and will greet 10 interreligious leaders, including three rabbis. Afterward he will hold a separate audience with American Jewish leaders.
But the Latin Mass issue threatens to cast a long shadow over the visit, whose theme is “Christ, Our Hope.” Several Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, issued statements in the past week with harsh appraisals of the papal clarification.
“While they say it does not change Nostra Aetate, the statement does not go far enough to allay concerns about how the message of this prayer will be understood by the people in the pews,” the ADL said in a statement. “The Latin prayer is still out there, and stands by itself, and unless this statement will be read along with the prayer, it will not repair or mitigate the impact of the words of the prayer itself, with its call for Jews to recognize Jesus as the savior of all men and its hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.'”
Some groups and observers noted that the German-born pope was well aware of Jewish expectations and chose not to meet them.
“The Vatican has pointedly refused to negate that implication” that the prayer for the Jews implies an operative call to proselytize, said Rabbi David Berger, an Orthodox representative on the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, the Vatican’s official Jewish dialogue partner. Berger emphasized that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
“The pope was aware that there were sentiments to explicitly limit this to the End of Days, and the statement does not express this sentiment,” Berger said. “So I think there was a decision not to say so.”
German and Italian Jewish leaders have threatened to cut ties to the Vatican over the issue, while IJCIC, an umbrella group bringing together representatives of various Jewish denominations and organizations, has not yet formulated a consensus opinion on the clarification. A conference call was scheduled for Tuesday.
Speaking of the papal clarification, Rabbi David Rosen, IJCIC’s chairman, said: “It would have been nice if it was more explicit” about proselytizing. “But,” he added, “very often the language of the Vatican tends towards a degree of obscurity.”
Those familiar with the pope’s schedule say that neither event with Jewish leaders will provide an opportunity for genuine exchange. Papal appearances are typically highly choreographed affairs, and meaningful dialogue with the Vatican normally happens quietly away from the media spotlight.
But the level of attention the pope will lavish on American Jews is significant in and of itself, far outstripping that given to leaders of other religious groups the pope is slated to meet with during his U.S. visit.
Jewish organizations lobbied to have to the pope make a gesture to the Jewish community, and the extent of the face time they are getting with the pontiff is widely seen as indicative of his eagerness to move beyond the Latin Mass controversy.
“The significance is purely symbolic,” Rosen said, “and in religious life, symbols are not insignificant.”
Controversy over the prayer began last summer, when the pope issued a declaration paving the way for wider use of the Latin Mass, whose Good Friday liturgy includes a prayer for Jewish conversion.
An early version of the prayer contained incendiary language that spoke of Jewish “blindness” and asked God to “remove the veil from their hearts.” Amid multiple expressions of Jewish concern and confusion, the pope revised the prayer earlier this year and eliminated the reference to Jewish blindness. Instead, the prayer asks God to “enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, has tried to contain the fallout from the controversy. Kasper has defended the prayer theologically, but says it refers only to an End of Days scenario and is not actually a call to revive missionizing efforts aimed at Jews.
Rosen says he has written assurance from Kasper that the prayer is not a license to resume missionary activity.
But elsewhere, Kasper has been more equivocal, noting that the absence of “institutionalized” efforts to convert Jews does not mean Christians must “sit on their hands,” according to an unofficial translation of a recent article that appeared originally in German.
That distinction, coupled with the absence of a clear statement on conversion from the Vatican last week, has led some to suppose that the Church made a conscious decision not to endorse Kasper’s earlier views.
“Kasper’s views did not receive the hechsher from higher ups, so the way to correct this is for Pope Benedict himself to address the issue when he meets with Jewish leaders on April 17,” said Seymour Reich, IJCIC’s treasurer, who also stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity.
“Pope Benedict,” he said, “is the only one who can put this issue aside.”