Walter Cardinal Kasper

Dialogika Resources

Welcome to the Vatican's Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

Eminences, Excellencies, Distinguished Jewish Representatives, Honorable Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We gather today in this historical location to celebrate the forty years of the promulgation of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, giving special attention to the fourth chapter of the Declaration, which deals with Judaism. I offer my welcome to everyone with great joy, and I wish to thank you in a most special manner for your presence, which honors me as well as the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Before introducing the theme of our celebration, I have the privilege to read you the text of the Message, which Pope Benedict XVI sent me to mark this occasion.

[The Message of His Holiness was then read ]

Most Honorable Guests!

Forty years are a biblical measure that carries many connotations. First of all, they represent a generational span, a period during which a generation is active and is then replaced by the one that follows. In our case, the forty years point to a path that has often been difficult and tiresome, but which God has accompanied and sustained, and which therefore is a time of blessing. Today, we celebrate all of this, commemorating the forty years that have elapsed since the memorable promulgation of a Document, which – like few others – has overturned a story that was two thousand years old, and that was complex, tormented, difficult and painful. We celebrate a Declaration that constitutes the beginning of a beginning in the process of reconciliation and of peace between Christians and Jews, and especially between Jews and Catholics; a path which, to be honest, is still distant from the promised land; a path that is still strewn with obstacles, misunderstandings and suspicions to be overcome, wounds from the past which must still be healed, and we still feel the duty of a purification of our memory by means of a continual process of conversion, or teshuvah.

I wish to convey my most heartfelt greetings to the two speakers who sit next to me this evening, His Eminence Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and the illustrious Rabbi David Rosen. Over the last years and decades, though in different ways, they have been at the forefront of the path that we have trodden. From the very beginning, I want to express to them my sincere thanks for having accepted to reflect with us on the message of Nostra Aetate, and on the meaning of the Document for the future – a future which, I hope, shall be a “shared” one.

In marking the anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, it would be impossible, or at least a sign of ingratitude, not to recall a number of persons who had the idea, the courage, the enthusiasm – and the spiritual strength – to face the project with resolution, making it possible despite the many, extremely strong, and unimaginable resistances, ad extra no less than ad intra: the good Angelo Roncalli, blessed Pope John XXIII; Cardinal Augustin Bea; his successor Cardinal Johannes Willebrands; the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, who, in a memorable audience of June 1960, convinced Pope Roncalli to take the great step; John Österreicher, who must be remembered among the chief redactors of the Declaration; and many others. But how can we not mention in this context Pope John Paul II? In two thousand years of church history, no other pontiff had made the intentions of Nostra Aetate his own, no one like him had promoted and deepened them with all the strength of his extraordinary personality. I would only limit myself to evoke the visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome, and the visit to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. With respect, and deep gratitude, we place ourselves in the footsteps of these giants who have preceded us.

Our gratitude goes also to those who have accompanied us over the last forty years in the certainly not easy, and often quite difficult and sporadic process of the reception of the teaching of Nostra Aetate, its application, its assimilation on the part of the ecclesial and the Jewish worlds, and its transmission, today, to a new generation that has lost the memory of the radical change accomplished by the Document. These have been forty years characterized by highs as well as by lows, during which it has been necessary to overcome much indecisiveness and many misunderstandings, but also years when we have witnessed the publication of valuable documents, articles, and works, which have contributed to the cause; they have been years that have seen the birth and the growth of deep friendships, years that let us have high hopes for the future.

In this respect, I have learned with great joy of the initiative of Msgr. Pier Francesco Fumagalli, former collaborator of our Commission, who, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, has edited a volume called Beloved Brothers: The Church and the Jewish People, which is now being published by Mondadori. This book brings together the most important texts of Pope John Paul II as well as the most important documents of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Going over the history of these past forty years, among the artisans of the early years, I would just like to recall at least two: Dr. Gerhart Riegner, now deceased, for his work of mediation between the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations [IJCIC] and the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, and the Right Hon. Chief Rabbi Emeritus, Prof. Elio Toaff, for the relations with the Jewish community of Rome. They represent a larger whole: two dear friends among many other friends.

Among the many guests who are here present, it is my duty to mention and to greet the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen, who chairs, together with H. E. Cardinal Jorge María Mejía, the recently constituted bilateral commission on dialogue between the Israeli Rabbinate and the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with Jews.

The message of Nostra Aetate is as clear today as then: a decisive “no” to all forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and the condemnation of every injury, discrimination and persecution that derive from them. It also contains a no less important “yes” to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity. We Christians have received as a gift from Judaism: the faith in one unique God, as well as the promises and the commandments of the Lord, which give us light on the path of our life and give us hope. The Jewish people have given us Jesus and Mary, his Mother. Despite all the undeniable differences that are essential for our respective faiths, we Christians have a unique relationship with Judaism, a relationship that we do not have with any other religion. For this reason Pope John Paul II called the Jews “our older brothers in the faith of Abraham,” our common father in the faith. Thus, instead of writing a Tractatus contra Iudaeos as in the times of the Fathers, we can now write a Tractatus pro Iudaeis.

It is a historical tragedy that both the “no” and the “yes” have been expressed only after the horrendous experience of the Shoah, an atrocious and until then unimaginable crime. It is not an accident that one of the most important texts published in these forty years by our Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews carries the title “We Remember” (1998). Even in the context of today’s happy occasion, I feel the duty to say the words of Pope John Paul II repeated by Pope Benedict XVI in the Synagogue of Cologne: “I bow my head before all those who have experienced this manifestation of the mysterium iniquitatis” ( January 15, 2005, August 19, 2005 ).

And so, it is because of such illustrious precedents that tonight we do not simply have to think about the past forty years; Nostra Aetate represents for us a serious obligation, a responsibility and a commitment for the future. As I have already affirmed, the Declaration was only the beginning of a beginning. Many historical and theological tasks must still be encouraged and developed further: we have fragments, but not yet a fully elaborated theology of Judaism, and we are also waiting for – if it is at all possible – a Jewish theology of Christianity.

Before us lies the vast field of social and cultural collaboration: the building of a world that is free from the plague of hunger, from the horrors of terrorism, a world that has finally rejected anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism: the building of a culture that is truly human and compassionate, based on the values that Christians and Jews share, a culture of “peace that is the consequence of justice” (Is 32, 17), especially for that land that is Holy for one group as well as for others. In addition, we both face a common mission: to transmit the flame of hope, the religious frame of mind, both Jewish and Christian, to a generation that is often without points of orientation and without hope, so that this generation will be able to build a world where, according to the words of the Psalmist, “justice and peace will kiss one another” (Ps 84, 11).

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, today we should thank God for all that we have received as a gift during these past forty years on a shared path, and thank all those who have worked together for reconciliation, as well as for friendship and peace between Jews and Christians. Let us pray, then, that the Lord may accompany us also in the next forty years, and if it pleases Him, for many years thereafter, towards a peaceful future where – according to the promise made to Abraham – we shall together be “a blessing for all the families of the Earth” (Gen 12:2ff).