Tridentine Good Friday Prayer

Dialogika Resources

"Catholics, Jews and the Tridentine Rite"

Published in The Tablet. Available courtesy of Dr. Kessler.

The recently revised Tridentine rite prayer for Good Friday Liturgy is on the cusp of threatening four decades of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations, as it calls for Jews to recognise Jesus Christ as saviour of mankind. Italian rabbis are among those who are now calling for "a pause" in official Jewish-Catholic meetings. Pope Benedict XVI, who personally drafted the prayer and Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, were advised by the French and German Bishops, as well as others, against using such language and appear surprised by the reaction among Catholics as well as Jews. Cardinal Kasper in an interview to the Corriere della Sera stated, "we think that reasonably this prayer cannot be an obstacle to dialogue because it reflects the faith of the Church."

It seems unlikely that an exclusive theological claim would be the cause of difficulty since Judaism, as well as Christianity, has certain truth claims. Jews, like Christians, believe that everyone will recognise its own truth at the End Time and the Jewish liturgy expresses the hope that eventually non-Jews will forsake their current beliefs before turning to the God of Israel.

Actually, the main reason the prayer has touched a raw nerve in Jewish-Christian Relations is because it deals with the themes of mission and conversion. For Jews, Christian missionary activity conjures up images of centuries of Christian persecution. There are numerous examples through two millennia (but especially in the centuries after the First Crusade in 1096), when Jews were offered the choice between conversion or death. Many chose death, and most of those who did convert later recanted.

The Holocaust was perhaps the most significant, catalyst for change in Christian-Jewish Relations when the Church began to acknowledge that centuries of anti-Jewish teaching and brutal missionising had laid the foundations for secular antisemitism in Europe. It is no exaggeration to acknowledge that fear of Christian missionising and conversionism underlies some mistrust of Christians to this day. Indeed, some Jews even view Christian conversionary activity as having the same goal as Hitler's policies; implementing spiritually what Hitler had sought to do physically- to eliminate Jews and Judaism.

Yet, from the very beginning of Christianity mission and conversion have been central to its teaching. Initially, the Christian message was preached by Jews to Jews (cf. Acts 2:14ff) until Paul raised the issue of reaching to the Gentles. The Gospels themselves reflect early controversies over the inclusion of Gentiles in Christianity's missionary activity. Mark 7:27 says in this context, "let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" and similarly in Matthew 10.6 the instruction to "go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" is ascribed to Jesus. Both verses express the view that the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah should be expressed to Jews alone. However, the conclusion of the early church, contradicts this, demonstrated by Acts 28:28 that the 'good news' should also be transmitted to Gentiles: "let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles." Indeed, unlike Jews, the author argues the Gentiles "will listen".

Paul urgently desired that Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah and it remained a mystery to him that most did not. But even after expressing that view, he repeated that their election remained unchanged for "as touching the gospel they are the enemies for Your sake but as touching the election they are beloved for the Father's sake. For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance" - note the use of the present tense. In Romans 9-11 Paul is arguing against Christians who believed that God had rejected his People and had cast off the Jews. Paul's answer was unequivocal over 1900 years ago and remains clear today. "Did God cast off his people? God forbid!" Consequently, whilst the universal significance of the Christian mission was taken for granted, its application to Judaism was less clear.

Paul expected the end of this world and the return of Christ in the very near future when "all Israel will be saved". But the world did not end as expected and the Church became established. Consequently, discussions over the place of mission shifted from being an internal Jewish debate (and a mission to Jews) to a mission to the Gentiles. This is mirrored by the shift from an almost wholly inner-Jewish argument in the New Testament to a later hostile external (Gentile) polemic against Jews in the writings of the church fathers. The fact that the first Christians were Jews was forgotten, primarily because the Church was no longer composed of Jews and Gentiles but consisted almost exclusively of Gentiles. The Church did not accept the unbroken validity of Israel's election by God and the covenant made between God and Israel. It was as a result of this thinking that led to a rejection of Judaism and 1800 years of a negative theological critique - Paul's comments in Romans 9-11, forgotten for countless generations, was intended as a riposte to such Christian thinking.

Interestingly, until the last couple of years, the Roman Catholic Church has examined other aspects of its relationship with the Jewish people than mission, partly because it categorised its relationship with other religions in different terms than those used for Judaism. The revised prayer therefore opens a new and difficult conversation between Catholics and Jews on the meaning of Christian mission.

Indeed, mission is in many ways far more difficult for the Church to tackle than, for example, antisemitism since it is relatively easy for Christians to condemn antisemitism as a perversion of Christian teaching. In contrast, mission (in the sense of making converts) has been and still is central to the Christian faith - the legacy of the command found in Matthew 28:19 to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations".

Historically, the Church's mission to Jews has been combined with anti-Jewish polemic, primarily because Jews failed to convert to Christianity. When the Emperor Constantine converted in 312, missionary activity became bound up with anti-Jewish legislation, which meant that those who did not convert experienced brutality. There were occasions when anti-Jewish policies were challenged by some Church leaders such as Pope Gregory the Great but the failure of large numbers of Jews to embrace Jesus has always been a problem for the Church.

This precipitated the development of various myths of Jewish depravity and stubbornness, which underpinned the traditional Latin rite, which talked of 'lifting the veil' from 'Jewish blindness'.

Not since the second century have Catholic theologians paid much attention to this subject. The church fathers responded to the Jewish rejection of Christianity not by initiating a vigorous missionary campaign but rather by developing a "teaching of contempt". Thus they interpreted the inter-Jewish polemic of the New Testament in terms of an exclusive criticism of Jews, which laid the foundations for anti-Jewish teaching. This is not to imply that the conversion of Jews was not desired; rather, their lowly position in society was sufficient to prove the efficacy of the Christian message. The missionary ideal remained but the emphasis was on the ignoble Jews witnessing the truth and grandeur of Christianity.

The most common criticisms concerned the failure of Jews to interpret Scripture correctly. The fifth century church father Cyril of Alexandria, for example, asked when will Jews "withdraw your mind from the shadow of the Law". For Augustine, Jews were simply 'satchel bearers', carrying the revelation until Christ. This criticism is based on the accusation that Jews could not understand the meaning of the Old Testament because they did not interpret the biblical text christologically. Thus, at the heart of the patristic tradition was the election of the Gentiles and an inheritance of the election of the rejected Jews. This was no longer the grafting of the Gentiles into Israel, but a Gentile substitution of the Jewish People.

Until now, there have been remarkably few references in the Roman Catholic Church to the Christian mission to Jews. Even Nostra Aetate, which marked the beginning of a fresh approach to Judaism, did not tackle the subject of mission. Neither did any of the official Vatican documents, which followed. In 1975 the Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate was published. The document stated that "Christians must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience". The days of Christians defining Jews and Judaism were in theory over.

As a result, Christian theologians began to re-examine attitudes towards Judaism. First and foremost, they reflected on the Jewish People's view of itself as standing in uninterrupted continuity with the Israel of the Bible. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, among others, regularly used the term, 'elder brother' to apply to the relationship with Judaism and Catholic teaching accepted the irrevocable nature of the covenantal relationship between the Jewish People and God. The new prayer challenges this teaching and raises a fundamental question: if the Church accepts that the covenant still belongs to the Jewish People, surely there appears a less pressing need to convert Jews to Christianity? Indeed, just a few years ago Cardinal Kasper said that there should be no proselytizing of Jews because they are in the covenant and have authentic revelation. His current comments in no way reflect that. Has he withdrawn his earlier statement?

Official Catholic teaching proclaims that 'the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 839). Thus, the one prayer for the Jews in the Catholic liturgy, which before Vatican II was a prayer for their conversion, previously called the Good Friday Prayer for the Perfidious Jews, became in the new 1970 English missal a prayer that Jews will be deepened in the faith given to them by God. Does the language of Latin rite undermine this position? At the very least it is inconsistent with it and it appears that the Church now promotes two opposing views.

Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, had previously suggested that the old Good Friday prayer should be replaced by the Latin version of the prayer from the 1970 Missal, so that there would be a common prayer for both missals. Pope Benedict XVI, however, took a different view, probably in order to reach out to conservatives, the more radical of whom seem to consider the Second Vatican Council not as part of the authentic Teaching Tradition of the Catholic Church. Indeed, they rather affirm the ancient Tradition of the Church against Vatican II.

The new prayer demonstrates that two divergent theological positions now exist. The first position, representing a vocal but minority viewpoint, argues that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the verus Israel, the true Israel, whose election is solely in Christ and grasped in faith. The second position representing the mainstream viewpoint argues that Jews are still the elect of God, part of the one People of God which is presently broken apart. One part accepts Christ and the other (the Jewish People) rejects him - but even in this rejection they remain in an irrevocable covenant and in special sense beloved by God. Since Vatican II, the Church's view has been that Jews still form part of the People of God and are not grouped with "all others who do not believe in Christ".

Put slightly differently, if the main emphasis is put on the concept of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Jewish people are seen as being outside. The Christian attitude to them would be in principle the same as to adherents of other faiths and the mission of the Church is to bring them either individually or corporately to the acceptance of Christ so that they become members of this body.

However, if the Church is primarily seen as the People of God, it ispossible to regard the Church and the Jewish people together as forming theone People of God separated from one another for the time being, yet with the promise that they will ultimately become one. Consequently, the Church's attitude towards Jews is different from the attitude she has to all others who do not believe in Christ. Mission is therefore understoodmore in terms of ecumenical engagement in order to heal the breach, than ofseeking conversion.

Fr Thomas Stransky, previously director of the Tantur Institute just outside Jerusalem, once explained this to me as follows: Christians should always avoid proselytism (in the pejorative sense). They should shun all conversionary attitudes and practices, which do not conform to the ways a free God draws free people to Himself in response to His calls to serve Him in spirit and in truth. In the case of the Jewish people, he asked, 'what is 'evangelization' - the Church's everlasting proclamation of Jesus Christ, 'the Way, the Truth and the Life'? Is open dialogue a betrayal of Christian mission? Or is mission a betrayal of dialogue?'

It is noteworthy that the Catholic Church has no sanctioned groups whose purpose is the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity. For example, the order of the Sisters of Sion, originally founded to convert Jews, renounced its missionary stance in favour of a dialogical relationship with Jews. The various Councils of Christians and Jews around the world are non-missionary organisations which believe that mission is incompatible with dialogue.

The new prayer suggests that contemporary Catholic understanding of the relationship between mission and the Jewish People is becoming more ambiguous. This is not to suggest however that there will be proselytising directed at Jews but Fr John Pawlikowski strongly argues that a new understanding of mission in relation to Jews, which should have its roots in Nostra Aetate, necessitates an urgent rethinking of Christology and Christian identity. This reassessment remains highly contested and the revised rite should be seen as part of the growing tension within the Church, which now has no clear consensus of belief in this area.

Many Jews expect that if they dialogue with Christians there should be no hidden missionary agenda or secret desire for their conversion. Yet much missionary theology rests on Christian claims that salvation is only possible through Christ, and therefore any solution to 'mission and Jews' will eventually need to address the issue of salvation.

At Vatican II, Cardinal O'Boyle expressed concern if conversion came onto the agenda of Catholic-Jewish relations. He said that, "the word 'conversion' awakens in the hearts of Jews memories of persecutions, sufferings...If we express our hope for the eschatological union in words that give the impression we are guided by the definite and conscious intention of working for their conversion, we set up a new and high wall of division, which makes any fruitful dialogue impossible."

His words still echo today.

Dr Ed Kessler
Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations,
Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths