Exchange between Cardinal Kurt Koch and Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni

On July 7, 2011, L'Osservatore Romano published an article by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, about the multireligious gathering to occur at Assisi in October. In his essay, Cardinal Koch referred to the Jewish holyday of Yom Kippur in ways that prompted objections from the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni. His letter of concern appeared in the July 29th edition of L'Osservatore Romano, together with a reply from Cardinal Koch. All three texts appear below in a free, provisional translation. Links to the Italian originals may be found beneath their respective titles.

A Pilgrimage of Truth and Peace to Assisi

Ad Assisi un pellegrinaggio della verità e della pace

Benedict XVI has called for a "Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world" to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first "interfaith meeting to pray for peace." October 27, 2011 will not be, however, a simple replication of the unforgettable initiative undertaken by the Blessed John Paul II in 1986, above all because in these twenty five years the world has changed a lot. The major turning point that occurred in the meantime is without a doubt the end of the oppressive communist regimes in the countries behind the Iron Curtain, which has radically changed the map inside and outside of Europe and which has been described by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the victory of the truth of the Spirit and religion: "The Spirit has given proof of his strength, the clarion call of freedom is stronger than the wall that wanted to restrain" (J. Ratzinger, Wendezeit für Europa? Diagnosen und zur Lage von Kirche und Prognosen Welt 106). The end of the so-called Cold War, which, according to the opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev would not have been possible without the energy of the Blessed John Paul II, has also not been indifferent to change in the ecumenical and interreligious situation.

The turning point of 1989 in Europe has meant that in the ecumenical landscape, the Orthodox Churches have especially been found to occupy a more prominent place in the consciousness of all Christians. From the perspective of faith and ecclesiology they are very close to us, though in terms of history and culture it may seem that the distance between us and them is greater than with the ecclesial communities of the Reformation. Listening to the voice of Orthodoxy is essential if we want to make progress in overcoming the problems concerning the division of Christians in the West. Listening to this voice will also contribute especially to an outreach to the East in ecumenism, which is extremely important for the social future of Europe. In fact, the political unification of Europe can be achieved only if there occurs a further rapprochement between Christians in the East and in the West, or whether the Church in the West as in the East, will learn anew, as Blessed John Paul II used to reiterate, to breathe with both lungs.

From an interreligious perspective, we must first take note of the great migratory movements that have led to a rich mix of the population. This means, above all, that religions other than our own are no longer perceived as far away phenomena but as something close by, that we experience daily, meeting with other believers, who take on a personal face. This is especially true for Islam, which is divided internally into many forms and is present in many European countries for a long or short length of time, and which is a rapidly growing religion in the face of a declining and steadily aging local population. Interreligious dialogue is therefore essential for the flourishing of peaceful coexistence in today's society. This new interreligious situation, meant that religion, often considered by the public to be irrelevant or even annoying, to be relegated to the margins of social life, has returned to being a topic on the agenda of public debate. This development should be seen as encouraging because a society that is closed to the divine is a society incapable of conducting interreligious dialogue, as has been clearly observed by Benedict XVI in his famous speech in 2006 at the University of Regensburg, Germany: "Reason that is deaf to the divine and that relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

The meeting in Assisi on October 27, 2011 harkens back to this fundamental point. It notes in particular the fact that the great hopes for peace that arose following the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 have begun to falter as a result of subsequent developments, since the third millennium has been marked from the outset by a frightening resurgence of violence and by ruthless acts of terrorism that show no sign of ending. In this situation, Benedict XVI considers it crucial that the various Churches and Christian communities and representatives of other religions once again give a credible witness that is categorically in favor of peace and justice in the world today. All participants are invited to a personal commitment and to declare publicly to try to ensure that the faith and religion are not in any way related to hostility and violence, but agree on peace and reconciliation.

This view is natural to Christian ecumenism. The ecumenical movement, in fact, has been from its beginning a movement of peace, which places itself at the service of peace among Christians and between Christian communities on the path of the purification of memory, the overcoming of the causes of the many divisions among Christians, the healing of old hostilities, and mutual recognition as brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to rebuild our unity in Christ.

Although interreligious dialogue cannot set itself to the same purpose, it does pursue respect, the promotion of mutual understanding, [and] solidarity and cooperation in building a peaceful and just world. Interreligious dialogue also "stands or falls" with concrete gestures of reconciliation, in the knowledge that peace can only arise [not] where hatred and violence, but where understanding and peaceful cooperation prepare the way of the future, that is to say where peace is the common effort of all religions.

Here then shines the true reason why the Pope chose the reference to "pilgrimage" for the meeting in Assisi, defining as its theme: Pilgrims of the truth, pilgrims of peace. Peace is possible only where men and women, as true seekers of God, make their way toward the truth. Peace, in fact, resides in the truth, as pointed out already by Benedict XVI in his first message for the World Day of Peace in 2006: "Wherever and whenever people are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace."

History demonstrates sufficiently that the denial of truth, or even indifference to it, injects the poison of discord into human relations and, conversely, the true encounter of religions is not possible if you abandon truth, but only if you enter into it deeply. In light of this fundamental consideration, the meeting in Assisi should in the first place be "a day of reflection." The reflection on peace, however, can produce fruit not in the splendid isolation of individuals, but in the common search for truth. That is why the second phrase that describes the meeting in Assisi is "day of dialogue." Since peace, according to the Jewish origin of the word shalom, is primarily a greeting, a word of the report, the reflection on peace can be achieved only through dialogue, in the exchange between believers who discuss together how they have found the deepest roots of peace in the encounter with God and have thus experienced a reality that cannot be unknown to the followers of other religions. Only if the interreligious dialogue is not reduced to a mere exchange of pleasantries, but involves the search for truth, can it become the common listening to the only Logos of God, who gives us peace despite our differences, our contradictions, and even our divisions.

For believers, finally, it is natural that a "day of reflection and dialogue" is also a "day of prayer" for peace. Prayer, in fact, is not only the primary articulation of faith; in prayer we also encounter the deepest core of peace, or peace of the individual with God. The meditation on peace with God, who is the source of all peace, or better of Peace, is the path that is decisive to take to find peace among men and women, among nations and among peoples. It is no coincidence that Jesus links his encouragement to love our enemies with his exhortation to pray. Prayer therefore reveals itself as a "center of healing" of reconciliation. Only the path to inner peace with God proves to be the path on which it is possible to also perform external acts of peace among men and women and among peoples.

Of course, such a "day of prayer" should not be misconstrued as a syncretistic act. Rather, every religion is invited to turn to God with that prayer that corresponds to its specific beliefs. According to the Christian faith, peace, for which both men and women yearn today, comes from God who has revealed his original plan in Jesus Christ, or the fact of having "called us to peace" (1 Corinthians 7, 15). Of this peace, the letter to the Colossians says that is given to us through Christ, "by the blood of his cross" (1, 20). Since the cross of Jesus erases any desire for vengeance and calls everyone to reconciliation, it rises above us as the permanent and universal Yom Kippur, which does not recognize any other "revenge" but the cross of Jesus, as stated by Benedict XVI in very profound words on September 10, 2006 in Munich: "His" vengeance "is the Cross: "No "to violence," love to the end."

As Christians, we certainly do not give any less than the respect due to other religions, but on the contrary, we concretize it, especially in today's world where violence and terror are used in the name of religion, if we profess that God has placed in the face of violence His suffering on the cross and triumphed not with violence but with love. Therefore, the cross of Jesus is not an obstacle to interreligious dialogue, but rather, it indicates the decisive way that especially Jews and Christians, but also Muslims and followers of other religions, should welcome with a deep inner reconciliation, becoming the leaven of peace and justice in the world. So the meeting in Assisi can be a key step in this direction, we turn our prayers to God as we prepare for this great and beautiful initiative launched by Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

July 7, 2011

The language of dialogue must be common

La lingua del dialogo deve essere comune

In L'Osservatore Romano of July 7, His Eminence Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has offered some reflections on the meaning of Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world that will take place on October 27 in Assisi. The reflections of the Cardinal involve interreligious dialogue and in the last part of the article there are references to the relationship with Judaism. I would like to return to these points because they are essential and crucial aspects of the problem of dialogue and its rules. The Cardinal writes that the cross of Jesus "stands above us as the permanent and universal Yom Kippur," and "therefore the cross of Jesus is not an obstacle to interreligious dialogue, but rather, it indicates the decisive way for especially for Jews and Christians critical that [...] should accept with a deep inner reconciliation, becoming the leaven of peace and justice in the world. " Without prejudice to the shared objectives of peace and justice, I fear these words, though inspired by brotherhood and good will, if not better explained, can expose the limits of a certain way of dialogue by Christians. To understand the impact that these words can have on a Jewish reader, some explanation is necessary. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement of biblical origin, is a key date in the Jewish liturgical calendar. It is the day granted for the remission of sins. In the transition between Judaism and Christianity, the latter has taken some practices of Judaism (such as Passover), integrating their elements with the meaning of [Christian] faith. This has not happened with all the autumnal Jewish observances, including Yom Kippur; a possible explanation for this absence is that Christian faith has absorbed the expiatory value of Yom Kippur, which is no longer needed, and this is what the Cardinal says here when speaking about the Cross; but on the other hand, the faithful Jew who continues to celebrate Yom Kippur implicitly says that for him the Cross is not necessary. So what's problematic in the words of the Cardinal, who apparently does nothing but affirm the principles of his faith? If it were only this, it would not be objectionable; one certainly cannot ask, within the framework of dialogue, that one of the two parties give up or hide or fail to bear witness to their faith because of a misguided sense of respect towards the other: dialogue presupposes difference. But the point is that we need to see what constitutes the difference. It seems to me to grasp the words of the Cardinal, in the entire article, first of all need to demonstrate to his own community that the necessity and urgency of dialogue are rooted in the principles of faith, and this is a commendable commitment because there may be a minority of Catholics who still do not share these ideas. But it is a quite different proposition to suggest a "decisive way" to a Jewish interlocutor using symbols that he does not share. All the more so when these symbols are presented as replacements, with additional value, for the rituals and symbols in which the interlocutor believes. The Christian believer can certainly think of the Cross as a permanent and universal replacement for the day of Yom Kippur, but if you want to talk honestly and respectfully with the Jew, for which Yom Kippur retains its permanent and universal value, you must not propose Christian beliefs and interpretations to the Jews as indicators of the "decisive way." Then you are really likely to fall into a replacement theology and the cross becomes an obstacle. The Jewish-Christian dialogue inevitably suffers this risk because the idea of the realization of Jewish promises is the basis of Christian faith, so the assertion of this faith always contains an implicit idea of the integration, if not the overcoming, of the Jewish faith. This pertains even when it is declared with the Council and Nostra Aetate that the promises to the Jewish people are irrevocable. One's own difference cannot be proposed to the other as a model to follow. This crosses a boundary in Jewish-Christian relations that cannot be blurred but must remain inviolate. At least it is not a way of dialogue that might be of interest to Jews. To use an expression very common today, it is like going from "both ... and" to "either ... or." The language of dialogue should be common and the project must be shared. If the terms of the dialogue are to show Jews to the way of the Cross, it is hard to understand what is the point of dialogue and what is the point of Assisi.

Riccardo Di Segni

July 29, 2011

Surely the Cross is not an obstacle

Sicuramente la Croce non è un ostacolo

I can understand why Chief Rabbi Di Segni has reacted so sensitively to my article on the "Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer" in Assisi. In fact, there is mention of an issue that not only is heavily marked from a historical point of view but also is now a difficult issue in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Therefore, I wish to offer the following brief reflections. My article was addressed to Christian readers, to whom I wanted to point out their task of reconciliation, precisely with Judaism, is a task that is derived from the very essence of Christian faith. It is this faith in the logic of the centrality of the cross of Jesus as the nexus of the reconciliation between God and humanity. But it is also nourished by love in respect to Judaism and, thankfully, the friendship, that I have witnessed from Chief Rabbi Di Segni, whom I wished to refer to the cross, since this has long been considered as a major obstacle to reconciliation between Christians and Jews. In fact I wanted to show that, starting precisely from the event of the cross, Christians have a duty to reconcile with the Jews. For Christians, the cross cannot be "an obstacle to interreligious dialogue." If the representatives of other religions and especially Jews, see it this way, it is not for me to judge; this belongs rather to everyone's freedom of religious belief. I absolutely do not believe that Jews should see the cross as Christians do in order to be able to journey together to Assisi. The fact that Yom Kippur represents a milestone in the Jewish liturgical calendar and is central to the Jewish faith is beyond question for me and I respect that. Close to my heart was the common task of reconciliation and peace, knowing well that the motivation is different for Jews and Christians. Anything that goes beyond this would contradict the spirit of mutual respect in which Pope Benedict XVI addressed his invitation to participate in the Day of Assisi.

In light of this, there is no intention to replace the Jewish Yom Kippur with the cross of Christ, even if Christians see in the cross "the permanent and universal Yom Kippur." This the key point that is touched on here, a very delicate one for the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, namely the question of how to reconcile the conviction, which is binding for Christians, that God's covenant with the people of Israel has permanent validity with Christian faith in universal redemption in Jesus Christ, in such a way that, on the one hand, Jews should not get the impression that their religion is seen by Christians as obsolete, and on the other that Christians should not renounce any aspect of their faith. Certainly, this fundamental question will occupy the Jewish-Christian dialogue for a long time, it can only be mentioned briefly here. However, it is certainly not an obstacle to the fact that Christians and Jews, in mutual respect in the face of their respective religious beliefs, can commit themselves to promoting peace and reconciliation and advancing together, therefore, to Assisi.

Kurt Koch

July 29, 2011