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Address to the General Chapter of the Sisters of Sion

[Courtesy of Bibbia Parola


I am grateful to God for giving me this opportunity of speaking to you today about a subject that I have very much at heart, for I was Scripture professor for 40 years, so the question of the Jews is, obviously, something both familiar and dear to me. You will realise why I, as President of the Secretariate for Christian Unity, should be the one to present the Council with a draft on our attitude to the Jews. I was committed to it, by my own private preparation, even before Pope John XXIII asked me to do it.

Today we are to speak about our relations with the Jews, i.e. with the members of that people which was once the holy people of God, and which has been preserved for so many centuries, and in such an extraordinary way, in spite of the tremendous persecutions which it has suffered..

The aim of your Congregation, as stated by your Rule, is "the sanctification of its members and the sanctification of others, particularly the children of Israel". When it was founded, more than a century ago, the situation was very different from that of today, and things have developed further, thanks to our Holy Father, Pope Paul VI's pilgrimage. At that time few Catholics were interested in the Jewish question (the ecumenical movement was equally unknown). Today, however, it is very much alive, so much so, in fact, that it has been possible for us to present a draft to the Council on our treatment of the Jews and I have heard no adverse criticism on the content of this draft. Its expediency has been discussed, its place in the ensemble of conciliar documents, but not its content. This shows that the Episcopate also realises the importance of this question.

Today, therefore, your particular vocation is more urgently needed than ever. I am going to speak first of all about your training, and your work in general. I shall then answer certain questions which have been put to me. The training consists of study and spiritual life.

I - First of all STUDY

It seems to me that you can get an all over view of the question by placing your Rule in the concrete setting of the Bible, and of what the Church is doing at present with regard to the Jewish people. My words, introducing the draft on the Jews to the Council, are to be found in "Documentation Catholique" 5th January, 1964, p. 68. It would be helpful to read this report, because it gives you an idea of the importance of the question - its importance today - and also its difficulties.

I. Your Sisters should be thoroughly acquainted with everything concerning the Old Testament and history of the people of Israel. The Old Testament not only by reading it from time to time, but by a sustained and meditative reading of it, especially where the CHOICE of the Jewish people is concerned, beginning with the call of Abraham, by placing it in the actual setting of the ancient East. God's gifts to this people are most remarkable. To anyone who knows Oriental Ancient History, the difference between the Hebrew people and the other nations, as far as religion is concerned - in its essence - is an amazing one. Amongst the other peoples one can find a certain concept of God intermingled with, or submerged by their polytheism; a slight idea of moral law can be found, but that is very imperfect, too. In the Old Testament, on the contrary, you have a clear concept of God; of a God who is unique and transcendent - and of the moral law. This is altogether extraordinary.

Then there is the vocation of this people; to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, to preserve and pass on to mankind the Revelation, found above all in the prophetic books, the psalms, the Book of Proverbs and the other didactic Books. Finally, there is the history of this people and their infidelities. This is important, too, if we are to understand Revelation, the History of Salvation, and God's divine method with man and man's lot up to the coming of Christ.

You, therefore, need a whole course of Old Testament studies meditative rather than scientific - a religious course which is important for you if you are to deal with Jewish people. You must show that you are acquainted with their religion, that you know the main events in their history and that you have a high regard for this people on account of this very Revelation and history.

2) We must understand the place of the Old Testament within the New, i.e., all those elements of the Old Testament which are maintained in the New - and there are many. The New Testament Revelation is incomplete without the Old Testament one, e. g. the doctrine of the creation of the world comes from the Old Testament. In the New it is barely hinted at. Then, think about prayer. In the New Testament we have the Pater, but there is no doctrine of prayer properly speaking, and still less are there are models. In the Old Testament, on the contrary, we have the Book of Psalms, which the Church uses so much that it is almost like a Book of the New Testament. This is why we e should often meditate on the psalms. Think, too, about so many elements in the Old Testament which are the starting point for the New Testament revelation, e. g., the Messianic prophecies, so often quoted in the New Testament, especially those of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant (Is.53), they are almost a description of the Passion in advance. Think of those points of doctrine to be found in the didactic books, which Jesus took up and further developed in His teaching (e. g. Matt. V – VII)

3) Besides all this, you must know the post biblical tradition at least in a general way. After the time of Christ, Old Testament teaching found a further extensive development in rabbinical writing in the Talmud etc., a development which often is not truly in line with authentic Old Testament Revelation. One must make a distinction, as far as possible, between the genuine elements, and others accepted by the Jews of today. It is too difficult to go right to the sources, you should, at least know some of the articles published on the question in order to see where there might be points of contact with the Church.

4) Again you should know the subsequent history of the Jewish people, the good and the bad, their sufferings, their influence etc., the attitude of the Church and the Popes to the Jews. Here, perhaps, we shall have many faults to confess, faults committed by the Church herself.

You know that our Holy Father, Pope Paul VI said with regard. to the divisions which exist among Christians: "If in those causes which have brought about this division, any fault can be imputed to us, we humbly ask God's pardon for it, and we also beg forgiveness of those brothers who may feel that we have offended them". (La Doc. Cath. 1963, p. 1356). These words made a great impression on the Protestants. The same applies to the Jews. The Church, especially the Church's sons - i.e. Christians, have been guilty of injustice towards the Jewish people. We can admit this without any injury to the truth.

Obviously in all this, it is not a question of every Sister having a scientific knowledge. However, it would be a good thing if some, after more thorough training, could help the others. This is particularly true with regard to Novitiates. We cannot expect all the Novice mistresses to be thoroughly trained in this subject, but you can invite one or other of these specialists to come and lecture to the novices.

That is all with regard to study.


The spiritual life has almost been defined by what I have already said about study.

1) The spiritual life must first of all be nourished by all the knowledge mentioned above. These things should be meditated on and applied to each one's personal life, e. g., the history of the Jewish people, their infidelities and their sins, - these must be applied to our own spiritual life and to the spiritual life of the world today.

2) Above alL, the example of Our Lord Himself should be thoroughly known, for He dealt almost exclusively with the Jews, and with Jews who were not always very well disposed. He gave a splendid example which we can imitate in our conversations and dealings with the Jews of today. Our Mother Mary, too, herself a Jewess, was serene and religious in her dealings with her correligionists. St. Paul, the great apostle, who suffered so much from the Jews, often speaks of them severely, but when he came to a city (e, g. Rome - the Acts mention it explicitly, but the same is true of other cities), he went first to the synagogue to preach to the Jews; he only went to the pagans after the Jews had refused to listen to Him. If you read chapters IX, X, XI of the epistle to the Romans, you will find a theology of the Mystery of Israel, which has much to teach us, and can give us many suggestions on how to treat this unfortunate people.

3) Efforts must be made to live a real life of prayer, praise and thanksgiving on behalf of the Jews who do not always do this. On their behalf, we should thank for all the gifts bestowed upon them, and given, through them, to the whole of mankind.

4) A life of reparation for the infidelities of the Jewish people towards God, towards their vocation, towards Jesus Christ, the Messiah, towards the Church. We must not forget that Christian are not the only ones who are guilty; the Jews have been so, too, throughout their history. I had a meeting in New York with the leaders of the Jewish Communities and I said: "An examination of conscience must be made on both sides - ours and yours, because we have both sinned, and we must confess our faults and try to make up". We should also make up for the ingratitude, unkindness and injustice of Christians to these people - faults which the Church has committed throughout the ages. Obviously, these faults do not touch the infallibility of the Pope or the Church; they are simply the human way of dealing with matters, which is also to be found in the Church. The Church could have been far more indulgent, far more understanding with them. Do you remember the impression made when John XXIII ordered the suppression of the words "pro perfidis Judais" in the Good Friday prayer? This made a tremendous impression on the Jewish world. This remark was made to me: "Now we are no longer despised by the Church as we used to be". Actually, this expression did not come from contempt of the Church for the Jewish people, because originally it did not mean what the word "perfidious" means today - it simply meant the "unfaithful" Jews. Nevertheless, the Christian people had taken the word in its present meaning.

5) Supplication and apostolic zeal for the salvation of this people. I have already mentioned Chap. IX of the epistle to the Romans. Read over and meditate on the first verses of this chapter, and you will see what St. Paul thinks, and how he acts. This is a theology of the way we should judge and treat the Jews. Our attitude must be one of truth, love and justice. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox have discussed the oecumenical question a great deal. Do not let us forget that the element which is essential and fundamental to the question is PRAYER, that prayer which works miracles. Had anyone told me, three years ago, when we began the Secretariate for Unity, what we should be doing in 1964, I should have said: "You are dreaming! It is impossible!" and yet, it was possible. Not through our work, although that certainly contributed, but by the prayers and sacrifices of so many Christians both Catholic and non Catholic . The non-Catholics have prayed hard, too. They prayed again just now for the meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch Athanagoras of Constantinople. The Patriarch himself, (I know it from one of his most intimate collaborators), prayed from midnight to 2 a.m. for several nights running, for the success of this meeting. This movement towards Unity must be the work of the Holy Spirit. Now it is the same thing, exactly the same thing, where the Jews are concerned. We must pray very hard. Where you have schools, it is most important to urge the pupils to pray for this intention. In this way, too, you are fulfilling your vocation.

6) Prayer, SACRIFICE. Each one has her crosses, her difficulties. Offer them up for the Jews, for the elucidation of the Jewish question. This is another aspect of the ecumenical movement, applied here to the Jews.

7) You must have a very special LOVE for the Jewish people, following the example of God Himself, Who chose them; of Jesus, who wished to raise them up; of St. Paul and others. When we show this love in our dealings with them, it brings results. One can work wonders with love, if we speak with understanding and intelligence, we can say things to others, that we could not say otherwise.


1) You can pass on to others what you have learnt in your studies, wherever this is possible (it is not always possible!) In your schools you can cultivate this spirit of understanding, love and apostolate with regard to the Jews. In school work, never forget your special vocation, as your Founder puts it in the Rule "Especially to the children of Israel..." - "especially" in the schools too.

2) You can make known this particular aspect of the Church's spirituality with regard to the Jews, among the people you meet. They know that you are Sisters of Sion, and have, therefore, a special right to speak of this, which is not the case with a great many other people, who can only mention it on occasion so to speak. But this is our vocation.:

3) Cooperate with any initiative which aims at improving relations between Christians and Jews, i.e., the Judeo-Christian friendship movements to be found in France, Holland, the U. S. A. and Germany, perhaps elsewhere. Their aim is precisely to bring together Christians and the others.

There are publications which deal with these matters, e. g. in Germany the "Rundbriefe" and in America "The Bridge" of Mgr. Oesterreicher. There are books on the question, too, a whole literature. You should be acquainted with it all, or, at least, what is published in your own particular language. You should have one or two books on the subject in your libraries and perhaps in your school libraries too. In the review "Christen und Juden", published at Thieme, you will find a six page bibliography on the question.

4) Lastly, as far as possible, collaborate with the Jews themselves in a thoroughly friendly way, in the affirmation of religious and moral values. There are many Jews who are both very religious and very highly principled, and who are able and willing to work with you. Do not miss the opportunity if it comes. One can discuss natural law, for example, but, above all, Old Testament moral law, which is really our own moral law. Our Lord said "I have not come to destroy the Law but to perfect it".

We can work together with them in the affirmation of monotheism, and this is most important in these days, in view of the tremendous propaganda put out by atheism, which is as contrary to Judaism as it is to Christianity, to any form of monotheism and to all religion. We can discuss the rights of man together. Besides this, there are all kinds of charitable works and social services. The Jews are very active in this sphere. Collaboration with them is a means of improving mutual relations. You must take the trouble to find out what can be done together.

5) In all these different activities, we must show the Jews, in a practical way, the true face of the Church, the true face of Christ, their Messiah: Christ in the Church. Many prejudices arise from ignorance or through mistaken ideas about the meaning and nature of the Church. This is not only the case with Jews, but al so with Protestants and Orthodox. Now, the Holy Father has made his wonderful pilgrimage and the people of the East have seen him. Only yesterday, a delegate of the Patriarch's said to me: "The Orientals have now seen a Pope as he really is, and not as they had supposed him to be - a Pope, ruler of this world, Emperor etc., They have seen him as he really is, in the wonderful example he has given, he was just a simple pilgrim, with no external trappings".

6) Whenever possible, try also on a friendly level to speak about religious matters with the Jews. But, and I state this formally, only on condition that you have a good enough theological background. When dealing with the famous "dialogue" with non-Christians and non-Catholics, I always insist that no one attempt to dialogue without preparation and a thorough knowledge of the questions at stake. This is a very delicate, but al so an important, matter. These conversations must bear the imprint of charity and absolute fidelity to truth. We must never practice false irenism i.e. dilute the truth. We must proclaim the truth as it is, prudently and with absolute respect for the conscience of others. It is most important not to force others, they must be left completely free to follow their own conscience. However, we must present them with the means of forming a “right conscience" - (“rectam conscientiam", said John XXIII in his encyclical “Pacem in terris" - when speaking of religious freedom).

We must present the Jews with the means of forming their own right conscience where the Catholic Church is concerned. This is the purpose of dialogue.

Our Holy Father said at Bethlehem: "We are prepared to consider every reasonable means capable of smoothing the way for a dialogue, with respect and charity in view of a future meeting."

I said prudently. You must not, for example, start by broaching the subject of the Messiah or the death of Jesus. One, can only speak of these more difficult questions after some time. And the Holy Father continues in the same discourse: "We shall refrain from solliciting any step which would not be freely made with complete conviction, that is under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit, and He blows where He wills. We shall wait for that blessed hour. For the moment, we only ask for our beloved separated brethren what we propose for ourselves that the love of Christ and of the Church may inspire future step towards rapprochement and meeting". It is not difficult to apply the principles of ecumenism to dialogue with the Jews.

My dear Sisters, this gives you a general idea on your training and your activities. I believe that you have a very wide and important field to cultivate in the spirit of your Founder.

Perhaps in time you may also be able to draw up a spiritual and apostolic Directory for your Sisters. Your Rules are very brief and very general. It would be helpful to have a deeper, more extensive commentary, more adapted to the present situation.


Some of you have asked questions.

1) How do the people of Israel continue to fulfil their mission in the world?

No doubt, the Jewish people continue to fulfil their mission without knowing it. First of all, as the witnesses of the Old Testament Revelation. They were the recipients of the inspired Scriptures and passed them on to us. They still love and reverence these Books today. Suppose that the Jews, as a people, had disappeared: the Old Testament Revelation and the History of Salvation, the messianic prophecies would all become pale and abstract, far removed from man; whereas now, so to speak, it is all embodied in this people. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite literature are dead writings for us today; they can be studied at the University, doctorate theses can be written on them, but they do not mean anything to us. It is not at all the same thing with the Old Testament which has boon, so to speak, bodily preserved., i.e. embodied in the very people for whom it was destined.

This mission also explains more fully why this people has been scattered. We must remember that the diaspora is not a punishment for what they did to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The diaspora began long before that, with the Babylonian exile. In the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, there were 42 million Jews, i.e. 8% of the population of the Roman Empire. So you see, they were already scattered throughout the Ancient World to whom it carried the knowledge of the One true God. There were over 150 Jewish colonies in Greece, Rome and N. Africa. There was a large, colony in Rome, and we have here both Jewish and Christian catacombs. In the time of Our Lord, there were one million Jews in Egypt and 11 million in Syria. You see that the Jewish people had al ready begun their great mission, which still exists. If there are Jews in India or in Japan, they are the representatives of monotheism. If they are good Jews, they still preach monotheism in non-Christian countries. This is why we must have a great appreciation of this vocation of the Jews in the diaspora. No doubt, the Jews are intended in this way to prepare the way for Christ, whilst at the same time failing to recognise Him themselves.

Perhaps for many people, their first notion of monotheism can be given by the Jews, and then terminate in catholicism. We have the same phenomena with the Protestants: in Japan, for example, many who are catholics today were Protestants first, because they met protestantism first, but it did not satisfy them. Today they are good Catholics. The same thing may be done by means of the Jews.

2. There is another question besides this one - "On the Cross, Our Lord said: "Father forgive them ....” we query how to remain faithful to the will of our Founder, without giving a false interpretation to these words of Jesus Christ, faithful to the thought, and faithful to its expression in vocal prayer".

Certainly, if Our Lord Himself said: "They know not what they do", it means that they, the people, cannot possibly understand the gravity of what they are doing, in all its depth. But, could the leaders of the people understand it in all its depth? This is quite another matter on which we are unable to pass judgement. Only God can do this, and He was the one who said "they know not what they do". This does not mean that they are not sinning in condemning Him, but that the sin would be far greater if they understood their deed in all its depth. So there is an explanation of these words of Our Lord that we can accept without difficulty, without minimising unduly either the error or the sin of the Jewish leaders, and without misunderstanding Our Lord's own words. In this question, as in so many others, we must not judge. For all our knowledge and all our theology, we have only a very limited, a very tiny, very narrow view. Our Lord alone can see the full depth of the deed, as well as the psychology of the person acting. Let us leave judgement to Our Lord. All we need have is a real love and real apostolic zeal. Judgement is God's.

These are the questions I intended to deal with, there are others... but what is more important than the answer to this or that question, is the general orientation of your Congregation. I would say a deeper concept of the fundamental idea of your Congregation, the fundamental idea of your Founder, who had received such great graces from God. An idea which can be far better implemented nowadays than at the time of your Founder, - as I said at the beginning, much more easily, much more effectively.

Today there is a new element; today many Jews are far better disposed towards the Catholic Church than they were a century ago, when the Ratisbonne Fathers were alive. I have already mentioned the Holy Father's pilgrimage, which had a tremendous effect in this respect. So - a great deal of courage - a great deal of confidence.

Today we can say far better than in the days of the Crusaders - God wants it! (Dieu le veult) and God will come to the aid of our feeble strength. It is not by chance that together with the question of non-Catholic Christians has arisen the question of the Jews, the two questions are linked together to some extent. And if we can say that it is the Holy Spirit who inspired the Ecumencal question, i.e. the improving of our relations with Protestants and Orthodox, we can also say that the Holy Spirit has raised that of our relations with the Jews. Your Congregation is called by God to do that precise apostolate, and the occasions for fulfilling it are, as I hope you have seen, numerous. Let us now ask Our Lord to give you the grace of understanding ever more and more the greatness of this apostolate and to carry it out energetically, very prayerfully and very confidently. On this matter, too, we have Our Lord's words that faith can move mountains. (Matt. XVII:19; XXI:21).

There are still mountains between Christians and Jews, but God's almighty power can move those great mountains.

Let us recite the Pater Noster as the Holy Father and the Patriarch Athenagoras did together, in order to give thanks for the grace which God has given you, for your vocation and also for all that is now open to you to do.