Nostra Aetate, forty years on

Bishop Ochoa, Fr. Matty, Fr. Stowe, Friends:It is my pleasure to bring greetings from El Paso’s Jewish community, and particularly from my synagogue, Temple Mount Sinai. We are so glad to have been able to share a weekend of study and celebration reflecting on the forty years that have passed since Nostra Aetate. So much has changed since the Second Vatican Council proposed a new relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths. Just a few decades ago, who could have imagined that a spiritual descendant of the Scribes and Pharisees of today’s Gospel Reading would take a seat of honor in a Roman Catholic Cathedral, be introduced as “Rabbi,” and stand in the tradition of Moses, interpreting God’s Word for God’s People? And yet here we are, in circumstances that seem less unlikely each time we travel this road. Dialogue partners become friends, friends become good friends, and we grow together.

Permit me to offer a prayer from my tradition on this occasion: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiy’manu, v’higianu lazman hazeh. “Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Guiding Spirit of the Universe: You have given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this very moment.”

Dialogue has blossomed during the four decades since Nostra Aetate was proclaimed by the Church. And now, from a distance of a biblical generation, we pause to consider where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and where we’re going.

Where we’ve been…

When Guiseppe Roncalli — Pope John XXIII — welcomed a Jewish delegation to the Vatican during the Second Vatican Council with the words “I am Joseph your brother,” he certainly intended to call to mind the entirety of the Joseph story. We all love a happy ending, but we cannot forget the beginning of the story. Driven to jealousy by their father’s perceived favoritism, the brothers hated Joseph so much, v’lo yachlu dabru l’shalom — they could not even speak a kind word toward him.

That observation of the state of affairs between Joseph and his brothers is a pretty good characterization of Jewish-Christian relations for half of Jewish history and nearly all of Christian history. We’ve failed to recognize the unlimited potential of parental love, and our disagreements have led to insult and all too often to injury. Paul alludes to it in his second letter to the Thessalonians, though the passage is just outside today’s reading. We concluded with verse 13; Verses fourteen through sixteen have Paul continuing:

“For you, brothers, have become imitators of the churches of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you suffer the same things from your compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us; they do not please God, and are opposed to everyone, trying to prevent us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved, thus constantly filling up the measure of their sins. But the wrath of God has finally begun to come upon them.”

V’lo yachlu dabru l’shalom — They could not speak a kind word.Paul’s hostility to the Jews of Judea, and the Jews’ hostility to nascent Christianity, is understandable and explainable. We can understand it and explain it even as we can theorize with a good deal of confidence about the social, religious and political life in the Mediterranean basin in the first centuries of the common era. Using the tools of historical biblical criticism – tools which, by the way, are not opposed to a faithful reading of Scripture, but are the servants of such a reading – we can reflect on the turbulent “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the decades following the death of Jesus. I’ll have a bit more to say about those tools and their application to our text in a few minutes.

All too often, our inability to speak peacefully to one another led to bloodshed. Due to the political reality in those places where Jews and Christians lived side-by-side, the blood shed was usually Jewish blood. Crusades and Inquisition are an undeniable part of Church history. Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, acknowledged this and sought atonement on behalf of his Church five years ago at the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. He wept at the memorial to the Shoah, acknowledging that while Nazism itself was not Christian – indeed it was the very opposite of Christianity – nevertheless two thousand years of Church teachings rooted in the notion that Jews were guilty of deicide made Europe fertile ground for an effort to exterminate the Jews. The Shoah is not mentioned explicitly in Nostra Aetate, but the blood of the six million is the very ink from which it is written.

How far we’ve come…

We’ve been in a very bad place for so much of our history, unable to speak a kind word to each other, and all too frequently unable to rein in our baser impulses. Knowing the state of affairs just sixty years ago, the distance we’ve traveled in one generation seems all the more remarkable.

The Second Vatican Council, of which Nostra Aetate was but one small part, brought the winds of change to the Roman Catholic Church. Change came to the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. Crucially, change came in a renewed emphasis on Scripture. Catholics were invited to reengage with those foundational texts that had for too long been left for others to read and interpret. Dei Verbum, the Vatican II document on how to read scripture which celebrates its fortieth anniversary in just three weeks, made it a sacred obligation for Catholics to create new tools for understanding Scripure.

I have one of those tools on my bookshelf, as do many of you, I’m sure. Let me share with you then the footnote to First Thessalonians 2:15 from the Catholic Study Bible. On our difficult passage about the Jews’ violence against the first Christians, the editors write:

Paul is speaking of historical opposition on the part of Palestinian Jews in particular and does so only some twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Even so, he quickly proceeds to depict the persecutors typologically, in apocalyptic terms. His remarks give no grounds for anti-Semitism to those willing to understand him, especially in view of Paul’s pride in his own ethnic and religious background.

What an extraordinary turn of events. If we could travel back in time to, say 1905, and tell a faithful El Paso Catholic that in one hundred years a Rabbi would occupy the pulpit at St. Patrick’s and would quote from the footnotes to the Catholic Study Bible, the part about the rabbi might well be less astonishing than the idea of a Catholic Study Bible with footnotes! We’ve come a long way.If the Shoah made Nostra Aetate necessary, it was that openness to Scripture, mirrored in an openness to the world, that made Nostra Aetate possible. The fresh air of the Second Vatican Council reminded the Church of the words of the first century rabbi who taught the Jews of Jerusalem, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Where theological triumphalism had held sway for hundreds of years, it was now possible to say of the Church that she “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other faiths. Indeed the teachings and precepts of other religions “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all.”

Nostra Aetate speaks to all of the world’s religions; its fourth paragraph is particularly concerned with Christianity’s relationship to the stock of Abraham. Antisemitism is condemned. Common biblical and theological studies, and fraternal dialogues, are encouraged. There is a recognition — first present in Nostra Aetate and more fully developed in the forty years since — that Jews after Jesus remained, and still remain, a people in covenant with God, whose wait for Messiah is not in vain.

For forty years we’ve studied together, first haltingly and then more robustly. Here in El Paso the last few years have seen a burst of activity. Jews have been blessed to learn and pray with Catholics, and more than a few priests have taught in our synagogues. I’ve been privileged to speak here and elsewhere, and to teach regularly in the Tepeyac Institute. In January, I will join Fr. John Stowe in teaching the Hebrew Scriptures in the diocesan diaconate formation program. Imagine that. A Rabbi teaching future Deacons in the Church how to read the Hebrew Scriptures…from a Catholic Study Bible with footnotes! Yes, we’ve come a long way indeed.

Where we’re going…

Theological dialogue and joint study are great, and were necessary first steps. I cannot go further in repairing the breach until I know that I have your respect, and the same holds true from your perspective. These forty years saw much commentary and expansion of the ideas in Nostra Aetate. A body of literature that might be called “applied Nostra Aetate” offered guidance on presenting the lectionary, Passion plays, and catechism in new ways that properly reflect current Catholic understanding of Jews and Judaism.

For our part, Jews have responded cautiously and slowly to the opening of this dialogue. Sixty years after the fact, we are still binding up the wounds of the Shoah and learning how to live once again as a people with worldly power. But in 2000, a groundbreaking document called Dabru Emet offered the beginning of a response to the many Christian overtures. Its authors characterize it as “eight brief statements about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another.” Dabru Emet affirms that Jews and Christians worship the same God, seek authority from the same book, and accept the moral principles of Torah. It proclaims that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. It calls upon Christians to respect the Jewish claim upon the Land of Israel, and it calls upon Jews to set aside the fear that interfaith dialogue will weaken Jewish commitment or practice. It’s a great beginning point, and like Nostra Aetate will require explication and application in the coming years. The next generation of dialogue partners will find plenty to talk about.

But dialogue is not enough. There is another path that calls to us. It is present in Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, in the section that we do read today. Perfectly summarizing the best sort of evangelism, Paul writes:

“we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.”

For forty years Jews and Catholics have shared our varied understandings of the word of God as it works in each of us who truly believe. But have we shared our very selves? Have we sufficiently joined hands and hearts to work together towards redeeming the world? Have we gotten off the pulpit and out of the classroom, sharing our very selves with each other and with those who need it most: the persecuted, the poor, and the powerless? Are we sufficiently involved in the life of our city, and are we bringing the fruits of our faith to bear on its future?To answer “yes” is to deny the facts. To answer “no” is to deny the hopefulness that is at the heart of our religions. And so we answer the only way believing Jews and Catholics can answer such a question: “Not yet.”

And in that “not yet” is the agenda for the next forty years. Let us share pulpits and classrooms, yes, but even more; let us share our very selves, we Jews and Catholics. Let us share our very selves, we Catholics and Jews, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, all who perceive of “that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history…”

The prophet asks, “Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us?” The answer is unambiguously “yes,” and “yes.” We are brothers no less than Joseph and Judah, and we share one father no less than they. Let us share our very selves, and bring God’s presence ever more fully into this world, nostra aetate, in our time.


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