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Jewish-Catholic Relations: 1990-2001

[Delivered at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, New York, May 1, 2001.]


  1. When I took over the office of President of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, at the beginning of 1990, the relations between the Commission and Jewish Organisations were at a very low ebb. I would not wish, however, to give the impression that this was in any way due to the lack of dedicated commitment to this task on the part of my distinguished predecessor, His Eminence Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, or to those who were his close collaborators: His Excellency Bishop Pierre Duprey and Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli. In fact, solid progress had been made within the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee between the Vatican Commission and IJCIC following on the Second Vatican Council, as is well illustrated in the publication Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue 1970-1985, published in 1988 by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana and the Libreria Editrice Lateranense.

  2. I am happy to have this occasion of paying a well-merited tribute also to those Jewish leaders and Jewish organisations who took the hand offered to them by the Catholic Church at the close of the Second Vatican Council. It is impossible for me to mention all those who come to mind at once, but others will surely forgive me if I just recall the special part played in the first twenty years of dialogue by Dr. Gerhart Riegner (who tums ninety this year), Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder, Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, Sir Sigmund Steinberg, Rabbi Leon Klenicki and Prof. Leon Feldman. Without the constant and deep involvement of these and many others on the Jewish side, Catholic efforts to build a new relationship with our "elder brothers" would not have had much success.

  3. In the closing years of the 1980's, new obstacles to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation had brought about the crisis in our relationship. You will all recall the problems caused by the position of the Carmelite Convent in Auschwitz, the visits of Chairman Arafat and President Waldheim to the Vatican. No meeting of the ILC had taken place after that of Rome in 1985. I remember very vividly and with gratitude the visit to my office, early in 1990, of a group led by the present Chairman of IJCIC, Mr. Seymour Reich, during which we were able to break the impasse and agree to a meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee to be held in Prague in September 1990.

  4. Prague 1990 was truly a milestone in our relationship, a kind of second Prague Spring. Before the meeting began, the delegates paid a visit to the concentration and extermination camp of Theresienstadt. We were able to set off again with renewed dedication on the path to a new future in Jewish-Catholic relations. I often return to the document that we produced on that occasion, and in which we called for a deepening of the new spirit that had been developing in Catholic-Jewish relations, "a spirit which emphasises co-operation, mutual understanding and reconciliation; good-will and common goals to replace the past spirit of suspicion, resentment and distrust".

  5. In the years following Prague, we were able finally to settle the question of the Convent in Auschwitz and take important, practical steps to carry out the programme outlined in the final Statement of the Prague meeting, especially in the fields of education and formation. I recall particularly in this connection the visits to countries of Eastern Europe and the work done in the seminaries of Poland.

  6. The 14th, 15th and 16th meetings of the ILC - in Baltimore, Jerusalem and Rome - took our relationship still further along the desired path. We were able to begin the important work of looking at what we could say together to the world in which we live. In Prague we had referred to "the work that the two faith communities could do together to respond to the needs of today's world", with special reference to "the establishment of human rights, freedom and dignity where they are lacking or imperilled, and for responsible stewardship of the environment". Lest they be forgotten, I would like to remind you of the Joint Declaration on the Family approved by the 15th meeting of the ILC in Jerusalem in 1994, and the two papers on Ecology presented at that meeting which revealed what Rabbi Norman Solomon called "profound common underlying values". Our work at this stage took on a new perspective following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel and the commitment of both parties to work together to combat all forms of anti-semitism, racism and religious intolerance.

  7. During all this time, however, there was one question that remained an open agenda. At a special meeting of the Holy See's Commission and IJCIC in Rome in 1987 a decision had been made that the Commission would prepare a Catholic document on the Shoah. Work began on this document soon after the Prague meeting. In October 1997 a Symposium was held in the Vatican on "The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu". And then in March of 1998, the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, with the express approval of Pope John Paul II, published the document: We Remember: A Reflection of the Shoah.

  8. The 16th Meeting of the ILC followed in the Vatican City, March 23 -26, 1998. The Statement on Ecology, prepared at the Jerusalem meeting, was passed with strong support. Since the document We Remember had only recently been published, there was much discussion on its contents and on the remarkable series of statements on the Shoah, issued since the Prague meeting by Catholic Bishops' Conferences in several countries, especially in Europe. It was decided that further study on the historical issues raised by the Vatican document was required and a commitment was made to set up a joint working group of historians and theologians to pursue further studies on the period of the Shoah and to seek a further "healing of memories". As you all know, a group of six historians, three Jewish and three Catholic, was set up. Their work will form part of the present meeting.

  9. In all these years, Pope John Paul II has been a principal agent in promoting closer Jewish-Catholic relations. The Commission for Religious Relations for the Jews has had his constant support and encouragement. During the Jubilee Year celebrations in the year 2000, the efforts of His Holiness and of the Holy See's Commission were richly rewarded. The celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000 in the Gregorian Calendar was primarily a Christian event. Yet there were two important moments in that year that have left, I believe, an indelible imprint on Jewish-Christian relations. I refer of course to the solemn act of pardon in St. Peter's Basilica on March 12th and the visit, just over a week later, of Pope John Paul II to Yad Vashem and to the Western Wall of the Temple.

    On March 12th, the first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent in the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul prayed in the name not only of the thousands of pilgrims in the Basilica or in the Square outside, but on behalf of the whole Catholic Church throughout the world:
God of Our Fathers
You chose Abraham and his descendants
To bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.
It was this prayer, with his signature upon it, that Pope John Paul II on March 26th 2000 placed in the Westem Wall of the Temple. Three days earlier, His Holiness had laid a wreath on the tomb in the Mausoleum of Yad Vashem and lit the flame that recalls the six million victims of the Shoah. It was in the spirit of this act of pardon that he stated during that moving and unforgettable ceremony:
Here, as at Auschwitz and many other places in Europe, we are overcome by the echo of the heart-rending laments of so many. Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to hear their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale. We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.
It has been said that the simple, but moving ceremony at the Temple Wall was probably the strongest moment of the present Pope's pontificate. By standing there [at the Western Wall], this symbolised the humility of the Church which has been viewed by Jews as arrogant. By standing there he transformed the relationship of Christianity towards Judaism. It was a complete reversal of history.
A poll taken in Israel immediately following the visit showed a dramatic change in attitudes of the Jewish people in that land towards Christianity. For those of us who had the immense joy and privilege of sharing those moments in person, there was the conviction that all that had been done in the second half of the last century to mend the broken and blood-stained fences between Christians and Jews had received the seal of God's blessing and could never be again undone.
  1. Let us then turn to consider the future. Our first aim must of course be to press forward. To stand still is to risk going backwards - and I feel absolutely confident in stating that there will be no going back on the part of the Catholic Church. At the same time, there can be a lessening of enthusiasm, a growing indifference or even a renewed spirit of suspicion and mistrust among members of the Catholic community should our efforts to keep up the momentum slacken.

    Hence, I would suggest that we need above all to continue to build mutual trust between our communities. Mutual trust is a basic element of all true dialogue. It is this in particular that we have been seeking to achieve over the past 35 years. It means first of all deepening our knowledge of the other as the other really is and seeking to understand the other more fully. This is achieved especially when we are ready to take up seriously those problems that are troubling one or other of the parties and attempt together to find a solution. The commitment to achieve such understanding and mutual respect is a process that begins with a change in heart, in our own individual hearts, and spreads through our community out into the world in which we live.

    We have surely had considerable success in doing this. But we still have much work to do. Pope Paul VI, in an Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam Suam described dialogue as "the simple exchange of gifts". Surely, the visit of the successor of Pope Paul VI, the present Holy Father, to Jerusalem in March of last year was such an exchange of gifts, an expression of deep esteem and trust on the part of the leader of the Catholic world to the people of the Covenant.

    In this connection, I would like to remind all those who are involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue to keep in mind that we are two distinct faith communities. There are fundamental questions on which we are unable to agree and we must respect the partner's conscience on such questions. Moreover, we have inherited a long history, in which the Jewish people "while bearing their unique witness to the Holy One of Israel and to the Torah have suffered much at different times and in many places.''1 It is only natural that this past-history will influence and at times adversely affect our on-going dialogue.

    We cannot, and must not forget the past. In the Mausoleum at Yad Vashem, Pope John Paul II declared: "We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that evil will never again prevail, as it did for millions of innocent victims of Nazism". We remember, but we refuse to be tied down to the past by chains that hold us back from building a new future, a new partnership between Jews and Catholics, a future based on mutual trust and understanding
  1. At the conclusion of the historic meeting between the two Chief Rabbis of Israel and Pope John Paul II, at the Hechal Shlomo on March 23rd 2000, the Pope did not hesitate to affirm:

    "There is much that we have in common. There is much that we can do together for peace, for justice, for a more human and fraternal world. May the Lord of heaven and earth lead us to a new and fruitful era of mutual respect and co-operation, for the benefit of all."2

    The more one is involved in Christian-Jewish relations, the more one comes to realise just how much we have in common. In the past, the emphasis was usually on what divides us, and even more on "erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament.''3 When we open the books most sacred to Jews and Christians alike, the Sacred Scriptures, we often open them at the same page as it were. We look to what we read there to provide us with the thoughts and aspirations that constitute the prayers we address daily to God. We have but one God, and we understand ourselves as being in a covenant-type relationship with that one God. Our understanding of the fundamental questions of life is the same, based on that revelation received from God; our moral code rests firmly on the same commandments. We have together an understanding of the special dignity that belongs by fight to every human being, as a consequence of that person being created in the image of God. As the Second Vatican Council stated, we Christians "draw sustenance daily from the root of the good olive tree of the Hebrew Scriptures onto which the Church has been grafted."4

    All this has not been given to us just for ourselves or for our own personal sanctification. We are called to be a light to the nations or, as Pope John Paul II has affirmed:
"As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is a common task awaiting us, It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another."5

Surely, the world today needs our common witnesses to the truths that God has made available to us. Jews and Christians alike, we are faced with a growing secularisation that either denies or simply ignores the existence of God. The advance in technology and the enormous effects on commerce and life of globalisation tend to make the creature once again arrogant and self-sufficient, as at the time our ancestors began to build a tower "with its top reaching heaven" which was named Babel (Genesis 11:4-9).

It is for us, Jews and Christians, to find ways to be a counter-witness to such arrogance, by means of our partnership. What is most important is being together, but there are steps we should take together wherever possible. In this connection, I recall the wonderful Concert in 1994 in the Vatican to commemorate the Shoah, the lighting of the Menorah in the Vatican Gardens on the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, the placing in the North American College in Rome of a Menorah on the occasion of Yom Hashoah in 1999.

These are but a few of the many steps that have been taken to consolidate the good work that has been done to create a new Christian-Jewish relationship. Much still can be done, especially in the fields of education and formation to further this worthy cause. We were made aware during the Pope's visit to Israel of the ignorance that still existed within the communities there regarding our relationship. That visit did much to educate Catholics and Jews everywhere about the present situation and the changes that have taken place.

In conclusion, I would like to say a word about the document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last September that unfortunately created great tension within the Jewish community and dismayed many of our partners in dialogue. Part of the problem was due to the way in which the document was presented by the media, and many early negative reactions were the result not of so much of what the document stated, but rather of what the media had given as its contents.

In fact, the Declaration Dominus Iesus did not deal at all with relations between the Christian revelation and the faith of Israel, but with the other religions of the world. The Catholic Church does not consider the faith of Israel one among the other religions of the world. Rather it has an absolutely special relationship to Christianity, and the document itself makes clear that the Hebrew Testament is considered by the Catholic Church, together with the New Testament, as inspired by God in the strict sense of the term.

In this context, I would mention the article published on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano on December 29th 2000, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, entitled: Abraham's Heritage -a Christmas Gift. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes the following statement:

"It is evident that, as Christians, our dialogue with the Jews is situated on a different level than that in which we engage with other religions, The faith witnessed to by the Jewish Bible is not merely another religion to us, but is the foundation of our own faith."
His Eminence in this short but very important article gives what has been called "a New Vision of the Relationship between the Church and the Jews.''6 After tracing briefly the history of God's relationship with the Jewish people, the Cardinal expresses "our gratitude to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardness of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present and who witness to it in the sight of those peoples who, lacking knowledge of the one God, 'dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death' (Lk. 1:79)".

The article has the following interesting comment on relations between Jews and Christians down through the centuries:
"Certainly from the very beginning relations between the infant church and Israel were often marked by conflict. The church was considered by her own mother to be a degenerate daughter, while Christians considered their mother to be blind and obstinate. Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes that throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology that tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by the inherited anti-Judaism in the hearts of not a few Christians."

For the Cardinal, it is perhaps precisely this latest tragedy that has resulted in a new relationship between the church and Israel, which he defines as: "a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other and reconciliation". If such a dialogue is to fruitful, "it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah (Rom. 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (ibid., 11:29)."

Cardinal Ratzinger suggests to Christians that they, in their turn, might pray to God "that he grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son and the gift they have made to us"; and then goes on to draw the following conclusion: "Since we are both awaiting the final redemption", writes the Cardinal, "let us pray that the paths we follow may converge".

It is on this thoughtful and optimistic note that I wish to conclude these reflections. I am most grateful to the ILC for giving me this opportunity of speaking to you about the past eleven years of Catholic-Jewish relations. It has been a great privilege and joy for me to have been part of this period in our relationship. I shall always treasure the friendships that I have made and if I have made even a small contribution to overcoming the sad history of the past, then I can only give praise to the one God, whom we all look to as our Lord. To all of you: Shalom!



1. We Remember, II.

2. L 'Osservatore Romano, 30 March 2000, VII.

3. We Remember, II.

4.  Nostra Aerate, 4.

5. JOHN PAUL II, Warsaw on the 50th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Information Service of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, 84 (1991) 157.

6. Origins CNS Documentary Service, February 15, 2001, Vol. 30: N° 35, 565-566. My quotations are to be found there.