At Catholic-jewish Seminar in Chicago, Polish Priest Looks Beyond Auschwitz
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At Catholic-jewish Seminar in Chicago, Polish Priest Looks Beyond Auschwitz

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While Catholics and Jews in Poland continue to quarrel over a Carmelite convent at the site of the Auschwitz death camp, a very different Polish-Jewish encounter has been taking place a world away, in a quiet corner of Chicago.

There, 21 Polish Catholic priests and one Polish Orthodox priest have been taking courses in Judaism at the Spertus College of Judaica.

Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago with the cooperation of the Polish Conference of Catholic Bishops, the six-week seminar is combining intensive study of Jewish theology and liturgy with an introduction to American-Style religious pluralism.

The priests taking part in the program, academicians all, “represent the cream of Polish Catholicism and the future leaders of the Polish Catholic hierarchy,” said Rabbi Byron Sherwin, vice president for academic affairs at Spertus and dean of the seminar.

Half of the priests have studied in Israel, said Sherwin, and a number of them speak Hebrew more fluently than English.

But while the seminar is intended to highlight the common ground between Catholic and Jewish theologians, participants are not shying away from those areas that divide them.

Not that they could even if they wanted to: As one of the priests described it in a telephone interview, the convent controversy “comes up all the time” in meetings between the priests and members of the Chicago Jewish community.

In those meetings, as in angry demonstrations taking place at Auschwitz itself, Jews want to know why the Polish Church is not honoring an agreement to remove the convent from what Jews consider their own holy ground.

MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES

“There are in Poland issues that seem to us more central,” said Father Waldemar Crotowski, a lecturer at the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw. “It is amazing for us that the Auschwitz convent may be seen in such a way.”

Nevertheless, Crotowski was willing to discuss the convent again, and what he sees as an unfortunate detour on the road to a better understanding between Polish Catholics and Jews.

Instead of focusing on delays in moving the convent, he said, Jews should recognize the significance of the original decision to move the convent in the first place.

That agreement, signed two years ago in Geneva by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, archbishop of Krakow, was to go into effect in February, but Church leaders say an alternative site for the nuns has yet to be found.

“I think that the agreement made in Geneva was a clear sign that Cardinal Macharski decided to continue a Jewish-Catholic dialogue,” Crotowski said.

“This is the very first time in all of church history that the church agreed to move a convent. The cardinal’s mistake was that it was impossible to relocate a convent in two years, in such hard economic times.”

Crotowski also thinks the controversy has been blown out of proportion by groups — on both sides — that have resisted Jewish-Catholic dialogue. “All these efforts are made by groups who are anti-dialogue,” he said of the many protests at Auschwitz.

For Crotowski, a member of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue with Jews and Judaism, the convent controversy and the seminar underline a single theme: the need for Jews and Poles to come to terms with their relations in the wake of the Holocaust.

“Even if we know the Shoah was made by the Nazis, we also know that it was made on our land,” said Crotowski.

“Both nations — Jews and Poles — suffered from German persecutions. This suffering should help us to be closer. But unfortunately one of the very heavy consequences of the war is that this is not so.

“After the war, there has been Jewish German reconciliation, Polish-German reconciliation, Polish-German reconciliation, but no Polish-Jewish reconciliation. Both sides quarrel over who suffered more. We must look at our suffering with new eyes.”

AN IDEA FOR AN ACADEMIC SEMINAR

Fostering that new look was the original aim of Macharski and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, archbishop of Chicago, when they first discussed the idea for an academic seminar in late 1987 while attending the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Bernadin suggested the Spertus campus, where he had already established the Bernadin Center for the Study of Eastern European Jewry.

“Our purpose is to see Judaism with the eyes of its believers — Judaism as living Judaism,” said Crotowski.

The Polish priest said that he had studied Judaism at the Hebrew University in Israel, but “even in Jerusalem, our academy program in Judaism was historical in character — biblical Judaism. There were no opportunities to look at contemporary Judaism, to look at its richness as seen by the Jews themselves.”

As result — and in addition to the six hours a day, four days a week of classroom study with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist theologians — the Polish priests have been spending the Jewish Sabbath visiting local Chicago synagogues.

Crotowski remembers most of those encounters as “very, very wonderful,” with American Jews often surprised to hear Polish priests with a better grasp of Hebrew than their own.

MITZVAH OF HOSPITALITY

“We experienced very deeply the Jewish mitzvah of hospitality.” he said. “It was fulfilled abundantly.”

Despite the convent controversy, Crotowski said the lessons learned during the seminar will enable the priests to pass on new lessons to their followers throughout Poland when they return on Aug. 18.

Crotowski will also bring its lessons to bear as the Polish Episcopate prepares a document on interfaith relations marking the 50th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

Crotowski is unsure what the document which the Polish Church hopes to have ready by the anniversary, will specifically say about Catholic-Jewish relations. But he knows what he would like it to contain.

“It will definitely contain elements of reconciliation,” said the priest. “We would like to overcome history and start a new future in our mutual relations.”

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