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A Lesson in Ecumenism

September 14, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish leaders talking with Pope John Paul II in Rome and Miami about issues of Catholic-Jewish relations, including the Pope’s June meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, might consider as a model the climate of Catholic-Jewish understanding that has emerged in Brazil, the world’s most populous Catholic country.

Waldheim has been accused of Nazi was crimes and placed on a U.S. Justice Department “Watch List” which bars his entrance into this country.

In Brazil, with some 117 million Catholics and about 150,000 Jews, Rabbi Henry Sobel coordinates the National Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, which is sponsored by the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil (CNBB) and composed of five Jewish and five Catholic leaders.

Sobel is the rabbi of Congregacao Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, a Liberal synagogue (affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism) which has a membership of 2,000 families and is the largest in Latin America.

Asked to comment on the Rome and Miami meetings, Sobel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a telephone interview: “Whatever I say, I can only say from the perspective of interfaith relations in Brazil. Catholic-Jewish dialogue is thriving in our country. Our ‘Guidebook for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue in Brazil,’ published last year by the CNBB, recognizes the “right of the Jews to a peaceful political existence in their land of origin, a right which fulfills itself in the State of Israel’.”

The guide, which was distributed in December 1986 to Brazil’s 229 Catholic archdioceses and dioceses, covers such subjects as Israel, Jewish history, the Holocaust, roots of anti-Semitism, Judaism in Brazil, and interfaith cooperation.

The introduction to the guide says its objective is “helping Catholics in Brazil to better understand the historical, religious and national aspirations of the Jewish people.” Sobel said, “The National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil is definitely one step ahead of the Vatican.” In April 1987 Sobel accompanied the president of the CNBB on an official trip to Israel.


Asked about the Pope’s meeting with Waldheim, Sobel said: “The Pope, no matter how important he may be in the Catholic hierarchy, is only a human being. And human beings make mistakes. It was wrong for the Pope to receive Mr. Waldheim; many Catholics in Brazil with whom I have a close personal and working relationship share this opinion. But the ecumenical cause is greater than any one individual, and we cannot let one blunder set back 22 years of progress.”

The 22 years refers to the publication in 1965 of “Nostra Aetate,” which was a major step forward in Catholic-Jewish understanding. In November 1985, to mark the 20th anniversary of this document, the first Pan-American Conference on Catholic-Jewish relations was held in Sao Paulo, under the sponsorship of the CNBB.

Seven resolutions were adopted, including one that stated “Zionism is not racism,” to mark the 10th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the infamous Zionism equals racism resolution.

Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, Cardinal Archbishop of Sao Paulo, the world’s largest archdiocese, told the JTA: “We, Catholics and Jews in Brazil, join our brothers and sisters in the United States and all people of good will in the hope that the Miami meeting on September 11 will be successful and will bear worldwide fruits, with the blessings of God. Catholics and Jews are united more than ever before here in Brazil, and we hope the same will be true elsewhere. I pray for peace in the world and for the efforts of all people who strive for an understanding between peoples.”

Sobel said: “We in Brazil are determined to move on as enthusiastically as ever, and we hope and trust that other countries will follow suit, so that the echo of our labors can be heard loud and clear in the Vatican. I am convinced that the more opportunities we have to talk with each other, to share our satisfactions and give vent to our frustrations, the more we will consolidate our rapprochement. All of us committed to interfaith dialogue and action in Brazil have a stake in the success of the Pope’s meetings with Jewish leaders. Let us not look back. Let us look ahead.”

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