Christian Conversion of Jews?
- Created: April 16, 2008
- Written by Walter Cardinal Kasper
The following was published in L'Osservatore Romano on April 16, 2008 on pages 8-9. An earlier German version had previously been published on March 20, 2008 in the newspaper FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) No. 68, p. 39 under the title "God Decides When and How: The Good Friday Prayer."
Discussion Regarding the Revised Good Friday Prayer
Striving for Mutual Respect in Modes of Prayer
The Good Friday prayer for the Jews has a long history. The new formulation of the petition in the extraordinary rite (Roman Missal of 1962) presented by Pope Benedict XVI was timely because on the Jewish side several phrases were felt to be offensive, and were also considered objectionable by many Catholics. The new formulation has made significant improvements over the text of 1962. It has, however, also led to fresh irritations and raised fundamental questions among both Jews and Christians.1
The sensitivities aroused on the Jewish side are to a large extent based on emotional rather than rational reasons. But we must nevertheless not hastily dismiss them as hypersensitivity. Even among our Jewish friends who have been taking part in intensive dialogue with Christians for decades, collective memories of compulsory catechesis and forced conversions remain vivid. The traumatic memory of the Shoah is a constituent identifying characteristic of the Jewish community of today. Many Jews consider a mission to the Jews as a threat to their existence; some even speak of it as a Shoah by different means. Therefore, a high degree of sensitivity is still required in relations between Jews and Christians.
Explanations of the reformulated Good Friday prayer have in the meantime been able to clear up the most obvious misunderstandings. The very fact that the Good Friday intercession in the Missal of 1970—the one in the Ordinary Rite used in the overwhelming majority of cases—is to remain fully in force indicates that the reformulated petition, which is used by a very small number of congregations, cannot represent a backward step, reversing the advances made in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate. That is all the more so since the substance of Nostra Aetate is also present in the formally higher-ranking Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (n. 16); and consequently, on principle, there is no going back. In addition, since the Council many statements have been made by the Popes, including the present Pope, which make reference to Nostra Aetate and reaffirm its significance.
As distinct from the text of 1970, the reformulated 1962 text speaks of Jesus as the Christ, the Saviour of all mankind and therefore also of the Jews. Many have seen this statement as new and unfriendly towards the Jews. But it is grounded in the whole of the New Testament (cf. I Tm 2:4), and it points to the universally acknowledged fundamental difference standing between Christians and Jews. Even if this is not expressly spoken of in Nostra Aetate or in the petition of 1970, Nostra Aetate cannot be detached from the context of all the other Council documents, any more than the Good Friday prayer of the 1970 Missal can be detached from the whole of the Good Friday liturgy, which is centred precisely on this Christian belief. The reformulation of the Good Friday prayer of 1962 does not therefore say anything really new, but simply expresses what has until now always been taken for granted as self-evident, but which has apparently not been sufficiently raised as an issue in many dialogues.2
In the past the belief in Christ which distinguishes Christians from Jews has frequently been made a "language of contempt" (Jules Isaac), with all the evil consequences that have arisen from that. When we strive for mutual respect today, we are striving for mutual recognition of each other in our difference. Therefore, we do not expect of the Jews that they agree with the Christological content of the Good Friday prayer, but we do expect them to respect that we as Christians pray in accordance with our belief, just as we evidently do as regards their mode of prayer. In this regard both sides still have much to learn.
The really controversial question is: Should Christians pray for the conversion of the Jews? Can there be a mission to the Jews? In the reformulated prayer the word conversion does not occur. But it is indirectly incorporated in the petition for the enlightenment of the Jews so that they may recognise Jesus Christ. In addition, the Missal of 1962 contains headings for the individual petitions. The heading for the intercession for the Jews was not altered; it still reads, as it did previously, "Pro conversione Judaeorum": "For the conversion of the Jews". Many Jews have read the new formulation through the lens of this heading, and that has called forth the reactions I have already described.
In response to that, one can point to the fact that in contrast to some evangelical circles, the Catholic Church has no organised or institutionalised mission to the Jews. To say this is to clarify the question of a mission to the Jews factually but not theologically. It is the virtue of the reformulation of the Good Friday petition that in the second part it gives a first indication of a fundamental theological response.
The text proceeds once more from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Romans, which also forms the basis of Nostra Aetate.3The salvation of the Jews is, for St Paul, a profound mystery of election through divine grace (9:1429). God's gifts are irrevocable and God's promises to his people have not been revoked by him in spite of their disobedience (9:6; 11:1, 29). The hardening of Israel becomes a boon for the salvation of the Gentiles. The wild branches of the Gentiles have been grafted onto the holy rootstock of Israel (11:16ff.). But God has the power to graft in again the broken-off branches (11:23). When the full number of the Gentiles has entered into salvation, the whole of Israel will be saved (11:25ff.). So Israel remains the bearer of the promise and the blessing.
Paul speaks in apocalyptic language of a mystery (11:25). That means more than the fact that the Jews are sometimes an enigma to other peoples, or that to others their existence bears witness to God. Paul understands mystery as the eternal will of God for salvation which has been revealed in history through the apostle's proclamation. In concrete terms he is referring to Isaiah 59:20 and Jeremiah 31:33ff. In this way he is referring to the eschatological gathering of the peoples on Zion as promised by the prophets and by Jesus, and to the universal peace (shalom) that will then arise.4 Paul sees the whole of his missionary activity among the Gentiles from this eschatological perspective. His mission is to prepare the gathering of the peoples which, when the full number of the Gentiles has entered, will serve the salvation of the Jews and bring forth eschatological peace for the world.
So one can say: God will bring about the salvation of Israel in the end, not on the basis of a mission to the Jews but on the basis of the mission to the Gentiles, when the fullness of the Gentiles has entered. He alone who has caused the hardening of the majority of the Jews can dissolve that hardening again. He will do so when "the Deliverer" comes from Zion (Rom 11:26). On the basis of Paul's use of language (cf. I Thes 1:10), that can be none other than Christ at his return. In fact, Jews and Gentiles have the same Lord (Rom. 10:12).5
The reformulated Good Friday prayer gives expression to this hope in a prayer of intercession directed to God.6 Basically, with this prayer the Church is repeating the petition in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come" (Mt 6:10; Lk 11:2), and the early Christian liturgical cry "Maranatha": "Come Lord Jesus, come soon" (I Cor 16:22; Rv 22:20: Did 10, 6). Such petitions for the coming of the Kingdom of God and for the realisation of the mystery of salvation are not by nature a call to the Church to undertake missionary action to the Jews. Rather, they respect the whole depth of the Deus absconditus, of his election through grace, of the hardening and of his infinite mercy. So in this prayer the Church does not take it upon herself to orchestrate the realisation of the unfathomable mystery. She cannot do so. Instead, she lays the when and the how entirely in God's hands. God alone can bring about the Kingdom of God in which the whole of Israel is saved and eschatological peace is bestowed on the world.
In order to support this interpretation one can refer to a text of Bernard of Clairveaux, which says that we do not have to concern ourselves with the Jews, for God himself will take care of them.7 The correctness of this interpretation is demonstrated once more by the concluding doxology of the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Romans: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!" (11:33). This doxology demonstrates once more that the issue here is the glorification in adoration of God and of his unsearchable election through grace, and not a call to some kind of action, not even to mission.
The exclusion of an intentional and institutional mission to the Jews does not mean that Christians should sit about with their hands in their laps. One must distinguish between intentional and organised mission on the one hand and Christian witness on the other. Naturally, wherever appropriate, Christians must offer witness before their elder brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham (John Paul II) to their faith and the richness and beauty of their belief in Jesus Christ. That is what Paul did. On his missionary journeys each time he went first to the synagogue and only when he found no faith there did he go to the Gentiles (Acts 13:5, 14ff., 42-52; 14:1-6ff.; principally Rom 1:16).
Such witness is demanded of us today too. It should certainly be done tactfully and respectfully; but it would be dishonest if Christians in their encounters with Jewish friends remained silent about their faith or denied it. We expect the same of believing Jews towards us. In the dialogues with which I am familiar this behaviour is altogether normal. An honest dialogue between Jews and Christians is only possible on the basis, first, of our shared belief in one God, Creator of heaven and earth, and in the promises given to Abraham and the fathers; and on the other hand in awareness and respect for the fundamental distinction, which consists in our belief in Jesus as the Christ and the Redeemer of all mankind.
The widespread misunderstanding of the reformulated Good Friday prayer is a sign of how great a task still lies before us in Jewish-Christian dialogue. The problems which have arisen should therefore give us occasion to further clarify and deepen the foundations and the goals of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. If a deepening of the dialogue could be initiated in this way, the recent controversy would in the end lead to a good result. We must of course be aware that the dialogue between Jews and Christians will by its very nature always remain difficult and fragile, and will demand a high degree of sensitivity from both sides.
1. An overview of the first reactions "pro and con" can be found in: Il Regno, n. 1029, 2008, 89-91. Apart from such reactions in the media, the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has in the meantime collected a series of thorough and detailed position statements primarily from the U.S.A., Germany and Italy: see R. di Segni, "La preghiera per gli ebrei", in: Shalom 2008, n. 3, 4-7.
2. This does not apply to the international Jewish-Christian dialogue, in which this question arose following the declaration Dominus Iesus (2000). The Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has taken this into account and conducted expert discussions in Ariccia, Italy, Louvain, Belgium, Frankfurt, Germany; the next conversation in Notre Dame (Indiana, U.S.A.) is already being planned.
3. On interpretation I refer above all to the detailed commentary of Thomas of Aquinas, Super ad Romanos, ch. 11 lectio 1-5, which is also very fruitful regarding this question. More recent commentaries: E. Peterson, Der Brief an die Römer (Ausgew. Schriften, 6), Wurzburg, 1997, 312-330, esp. 323; E. Kasemann, An die Römer (HNT 8a), Tubingen, 1973, 298-308; H. Schlier, Der Römerbrief, (HTHKNT, 6), Freiburg im Breisgau, 1977, 320-350, esp. 337-341; O. Kuss, Der Römerbrief, 3. Lieferung, Regensburg, 1978, 809-825; U. Wilckens, Der Brief an die Römer (EKK, Vl/2), Zürich-Neukirchen, 1980, 234-274, esp. 252-257. Fundamental: the document of the Pontifical Bible Commission Das jüdische Volk und seine heilige Schrift in der christlichen Bibel (2001). Also F. Mussner, Traktat über die Juden, Munich, 1979, 52-67; J. Ratzinger, La Chiesa, Israele e le religioni del mondo, Turin, 2000; J. M. Lustiger, La promessa, Paris, 2002; W. Kasper, "L'antica e la nuova alleanza nel dialogo ebraicocristiano", in: Nessuno è perduto, Comunione, dialogo ecumenico, evangelizzazione, Bologna, 2005, 95-119. In addition, a wealth of more recent literature on the question of Jewish-Christian dialogue, mainly in English.
4. Important texts include Is 2:2-5; 49:9-13; 60; Mi 4:1-3 u.a. On this subject: J. Jeremias, Jesu Verheißung für die Völker, Göttingen, 1959.
5. This raises the most fundamental theological issue in current Jewish-Christian dialogue: Is there one single covenant or two parallel covenants for Jews and Christians? The core issue here is the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ, which from the Christian perspective is inalienable. See the overview of older literature on this topic in J. T. Pawlikowski, Judentum und Christentum, in: TRE 18 (1988) 386-403; on the basis of interventions by myself and others, Pawlikowski has advanced his position significantly and given a thorough report of the current state of this discussion in: "Reflections on Covenant and Mission", in: Themes in Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. E. Kessler and M. J. Wright, Cambridge, England, 2005, 273-299.
6. The prayer has altered this text to the extent that it speaks of the entry of the Gentiles "into the Church", which is not found in Paul. That has led some Jewish critics to draw the conclusion that it means the entry of Israel into the Church, which in turn is not stated in the prayer. In the sense of the Apostle Paul one should rather say that the salvation of the greater part of the Jews will indeed be mediated by Jesus Christ, but not by entry into the Church. At the end of days, when the Kingdom of God becomes a final reality, there will no longer be a visible Church. The point here is that at the end of days the one people of God, consisting, of Jews and Gentiles who have become faithful, will once more be one and reconciled.
7. Bernard of Clairvaux, De consideratione, III, 1, 3. See also: Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, Sermo 79, 5.