This text is based on the unedited transcripts of lectures given in the series "The Catholic Church and the Jewish People from Vatican II to Today" delivered at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome between October 19, 2004 and January 25, 2005 under the auspices of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies. The full collected texts of the course of lectures will be published during the first half of 2005 by:

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Cardinal MartiniReflections Towards Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini

Rome, 4th November 2004 at the Pontifical Gregorian University

            [Cardinal Martini is the Archbishop of Milan emeritus.]


            Bruno Forte has outlined the fundamental elements of a Christian theology of Judaism that could give a positive reading of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, without being tempted by extremist tendencies of an exclusivist nature (according to which Christianity has nothing to do with Judaism and would do better if it simply let go of any connection with the First Testament), or of an inclusivist bent (for which Christianity implies that God’s plan favoring the people of Israel has been replaced with another plan of salvation where Israel is not considered).

            The wealth of data from his lecture has indicated that the problem is extremely complex in fact, we are most likely only at the beginning of a radical theological re-thinking [of this question], in line with the indications that have come in a special way from the Second Vatican Council. This re-thinking, or re-appraisal, takes place only slowly, and especially requires time for its assimilation by local communities. At the recent symposium held at Grottaferrata on October 17th-19th, 2004, it was remarked how “so far, there is yet no awareness in our communities of the epochal changes that have taken place in the relation between Catholics and Jews.” Thus, it was thought necessary to declare once more that “we are not enemies, but unequivocal partners in the articulation of the moral values that are essential for the survival and the welfare of human society.”

            Here one recalls the painful history of the past, with centuries of closures, ostracisms, reciprocal misunderstandings and calumnies. It is a history that we cannot remember without a deep sense of sorrow and humiliation, all the more so as we gradually realize how, in this respect, many Christians have behaved in opposition to the Gospel, and thus have obscured the truth and the love that ought always to flow from the Church of Christ. Today things are changing, but we need time and energy, even because new events in the history of our times give the virus of antisemitism the opportunity to spread and to give rise to condemnatory theories and judgments. In this perspective, I would like to answer the question: how can a local Church, given the existing negative stereotypes, help people to overcome them, and how can it develop a climate of friendly collaboration, respect and reciprocal esteem, which can in its turn provide the cultural background for a healthy theological re-appraisal? 

            The point is thus not only for specialists to discuss of the relations between Jews and Christians, but rather to find some points of reference for a common ecclesial agenda and for a dialogue between the Christian and the Jewish peoples that provides a background for the efforts of the theologians and the exegetes. What is at stake here is not merely the greater or lesser vitality of a dialogue, but something that concerns us Christians. We must make sure that the faithful gain a renewed awareness of their link with the children of Abraham, with all the resulting consequences for the doctrine, the discipline, the liturgy and the spiritual life of the Church, as well as her mission in the world of today.

            It is necessary for the Church to elaborate a better self-understanding of her own nature and mission in relation with the Jewish people. Before anything else, this necessitates a heightened attention to what the Jewish people thinks and says about itself. 

           When I indicate some elements that may foster such understanding, I cannot but refer to my experience as Archbishop of Milan, which lasted for over twenty years, and where I had numerous occasions to encounter the members of the Jewish community. For this, I also have to thank the Chief Rabbi, Prof. Laras, whom I am glad to greet here this evening with great cordiality and gratitude. These initiatives gradually created a more and more open and friendly environment, characterized by reciprocal attention and a sincere desire to foster mutual esteem and understanding.

I.                   My experience tells me therefore that it is possible to make progress on the road of friendship and reconciliation. For this goal to be achieved, four things are necessary:

  1. Christians must know not only the New Testament, but also the texts of the First Testament and must be able to interpret them in the light of the Gospel, so as to see the continuity between the things that are narrated, promised and foreseen in the Hebrew Bible, and the events of the Christian Church. It is clear that this reading is typically Christian. At the same time, it enables a reappraisal of the content of the pages of the First Testament, and it set forth a path of continuity laying the foundations for an ever more profound dialogue.

  2. It is necessary to acquire an understanding of post-Biblical Judaism, which, until very recently, was almost totally lacking in the Catholic Church. For this reason it is necessary – and I have said it more than once – not only to know the books and the traditions that after the destruction of the Temple continued to maintain in life a [specifically] Jewish hope, but also to widen our horizons to the entire history, the customs, the artistic, scientific, literary and musical talents of the Jewish people. It is thus necessary to cultivate an attitude of esteem and of love towards this people. Simple anti-antisemitism is not enough. It is thus necessary to develop motivations for a friendship that in the heart of the other increasingly reads the thoughts that we share, and that finds a space for the differences, making sure however that these differences do not lead to conflict or dismissal. To this purpose, we shall have to organize numerous cultural initiatives. First of all, in the formation of the future priests it shall be necessary to emphasize the knowledge of Biblical and post-Biblical Judaism. Over the last years, a certain progress has been made in this direction, but much remains to be done, especially because up to now only few have received this type of formation.

  3.  It is necessary to work together to realize concrete initiatives of charity, of service, of justice and of peace. Christian ethics and Jewish ethics are largely identical and pursue the same objectives. It is for this reason that it is possible for Jews and for Christians to work together in many fields and thus to establish those conditions of mutual trust which are the main road for an interreligious, intercultural and even political dialogue.

  4. Where there are conflicts, as at present between Israelis and Palestinians, it is necessary to remain in the middle and to work so that all violence may cease and everyone may learn to understand the pain of the other. For this reason I have chosen to live in Jerusalem most of the time and I have set as my main priority the prayer of intercession, so that the people of the Middle East, and in particular Jews and Palestinians, might discover the ways of mutual trust and dialogue. In Jerusalem, I have been particularly struck by my encounter with an association of Palestinian and Jewish families, each of which has had a member killed in the war or because of terrorism. These families meet regularly so as to understand each other’s grief and to propose initiatives of dialogue, of reconciliation and of peace. I believe everything started from the mother of a Jewish girl who strongly desired peace and who at the age of fourteen was already taking part in peace demonstrations. At the age of sixteen, the girl was killed by a terrorist. The mother, who was in a state of shock, realized that she must not abandon herself to her grief, nor yield to desperation and the desire for revenge. Thus, she set out to look for and to visit the families of those who had experienced a similar tragedy, both Jews and Arabs. In this way, groups of encounter were started that enjoy great credibility among other families, because they bear with suffering and dignity a great sorrow, and turn it into a resource to overcome their conflict. Among other things, this group managed to let a great number of Jews and Arabs talk to each other, giving them the opportunity to get in touch with each other on the phone. This has led to thousands and thousands of phone-calls between members of the two peoples. I have mentioned this story to point out that creative initiatives to overcome the barrier of hatred never cease, and manage to accomplish remarkable things.

II.                To ensure that such a path becomes possible, it is necessary to proceed by stages. 

  1.  The first stage shall be that of prayer. We know that, in the drama of history, humanity is not alone. Unsuspected dimensions of faith, of love and of hope disclose themselves to Jews as well as to Christians. For Jews, every moment or situation in life carries the possibility to worship the name of the Most High, to give witness to His Holy Name. For this purpose, an important role is played by the feasts that recur in different periods of the year, starting of course from the Passover. It is thus necessary that the Christians understand this constant Jewish attitude of adoration of the name of God. To vivify our Eucharists, to celebrate the liturgy with all its precious values, the Christians ought to accustom themselves more and more to understand the prayers and the spirituality of Jews.

  2.  The second stage is the conversion of the heart, in Hebrew teshuva. For the Jew, every day is made for the teshuva of the individual and of the community. Indeed for us, therefore, every day is an opportunity to begin to ask God and our brothers and sisters to accept our sorrow for the evil that we have done and the good that we have forgotten to accomplish. Let us humbly approach our Jewish brothers and sisters, the history of their suffering, of their martyrdom, of the persecutions that they have undergone. Let us remove the tendentious interpretations of passages included in the New Testament and in other writings. Let us eliminate the misunderstandings that still make us suspicious of our reciprocal good will. Actually, we all ardently desire the same thing: to be authentic, to be faithful to the truth that we all know.

  3. The third stage is that of study, and subsequently of dialogue. In its search for truth, humankind builds schools, research centers and universities. In the past, Judaism produced Talmudic reflection and all its attendant treatises. Now, it has established many thriving institutes that focus on research and on dialogue, in Jerusalem as well as in many other parts of the world. The Church cannot ignore the results of this elaboration, as they are presented in the religious, juridical and philosophical texts of post-biblical Jewish literature. I am convinced that a deeper understanding of Judaism and its currents is vital for the Church, not only so as to overcome a centuries-old ignorance and to begin a fruitful dialogue, but also to deepen the understanding that the Church has of itself. In other words, I would like to emphasize the importance, for the theology of Christian praxis, of the study of the problems derived from the interruption of the contribution that the theology and the praxis of Jewish-Christians was giving to the early Christian community. It is a fact that the first great schism, that between Jews and Christians, has deprived the Church of the help it would have received from the Jewish tradition. I am going to list just three consequences of this failed interaction. 

    1. Firstly, the permanent difficulty of Christian praxis to formulate with precision the right attitude of the individuals and of the community towards the technical, economic and political power of this world. 

    2. Secondly, Christian praxis finds it very difficult to develop a balanced attitude towards the body, towards sex and towards the family. 

    3. Finally, Christian spirituality struggles to find the right relationship between the Messianic eschatological hope and the hopes and the expectations of individuals and communities, in relation to justice, human rights and so on. The endless discussions on practical implications and viewpoints in these sectors (it is sufficient to think of the laws on artificial insemination and on the use of embryos in research) ultimately stem from the unhealed wound inflicted by that first schism. We can thus understand why Saint Paul could say, in the Letter to the Romans, the re-composition of the unity between the Jewish and the Christian tradition shall be “a resurrection from the dead” (Rm 11, 15).

  4.  The fourth stage shall be a dialogue characterized by universality and openness to all. Judaism and the Christian Churches cannot stop at a dialogue that excludes other interlocutors. The very nature of this relationship implies that it must be open first of all to Islam, because of the historical, cultural and religious roots it shares with Christianity and because of the shared ancestry in Abraham. Here we cannot expect short-term results or strategic preferential advantages: on the contrary, we must begin to propose shared values, so as to discover [new] aims and instruments of dialogue, knowing that in this way we are doing a service to humanity as a whole. In this dialogue the city of Jerusalem has a fundamental importance. In an apostolic letter concerning this city, John Paul II has emphasized how “of course, we cannot forget to invoke the desired security, the rightful peace for the Jewish people; on the other hand the Palestinian people has the natural right, according to justice […] to live in peace and serenity with the other peoples of the region.” The Holy Father emphasizes that “the holy city of Jerusalem, so dear to Jews, Christians and Muslims, towers as a symbol of concord, of union and of peace for the entire human family,” and goes on to express his desire that “with good will and an open heart a rightful and effective way may be found to reconcile firmly and harmoniously,” and to defend adequately and effectively, “different interests and aspirations.” In their recent encounter in October, among other things, the rabbis and the members of the commission of the Holy See declared, referring to some recent episode: “Jerusalem has a sacred character for all the children of Abraham. We appeal to all the competent authorities so that they may respect this character and may prevent all actions that would wound the sensitivity of the religious communities that reside in Jerusalem and that hold this city at heart. We also ask the religious authorities to protest whenever disrespectful actions are carried out against representatives of religious denominations, religious symbols or holy places […] It is of the utmost importance that all religious communities educate their members, so as to make sure that everyone treats with respect and dignity the members of other faiths and the beliefs they cherish.”

    In this context, Judaism offers many examples of openness to dialogue not only with Islam, but also with other religions, as well as with science and philosophy. Among the Christians, as far as this dialogue is concerned, we ought to mention the recent names of Louis Massignon and Charles de Foucauld, and, closer to our time, of Giorgio La Pira, Monsignor Rossano, Cardinal Willebrands and Cardinal Bea.

  5.  The fifth stage is that of  initiatives at the academic level, as well as at the level of school formation. The introduction to Jewish religiosity and culture can be fostered in a variety of ways. At the academic level, one might promote encounters and research projects, coordinating what already exists; in the schools, one might use the possibilities foreseen by the school laws and revising the textbooks. A further possibility would be the organization of re-training courses for the clergy and the catechists, and the establishment of such classes in the seminaries and the dioceses.

  6. If the different stages that I have listed are followed in succession, it shall also be easier to implement the last stage, which is the creation of meeting points and of ambits of social, political and cultural collaboration. We can thus hope that, in promoting and defending the life and the freedom of all people, Jews and Christians shall, more often than in the past, find themselves next to one another, out of a shared ethical impulse and common ethical and ideal reasons. The declaration of the bishops and the rabbis mentioned above notes how Biblical teaching demands that the goal of justice (zedek umishpat) be pursued through the ways of charity and compassion (hesed verahamim): this necessitates an effort to go beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) for the good of society as a whole. Thus the committee asks that special attention be given to the challenges of poverty, of disease and of discrimination; that we fight the unequal distribution of resources and a globalization without human solidarity; and that we work towards the peaceful resolution of conflicts, thereby emphasizing our responsibilities in front of the threat of terrorism in all its forms.

III.             What do we expect as the outcome of these stages? To propose some common long-term objectives might appear presumptuous if we did not trust the Spirit of God, who, from the very beginning, blew upon the primordial waters. He is the One Whom we invoke in all time: “Send your Spirit, o Lord, and renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104, 30). 

  1.  The first common objective is to be witnesses of the love of the Father throughout the whole world. All people are equal objects of the love of God. In this mutual witness we are thus united by a goal that draws us all.

    If we Christians believe that we are in continuity and in communion with the patriarchs, the prophets, those exiled to Babylon and the Maccabean martyrs, it is necessary that this communion be realized in all possible ways, also towards those Jews who began to codify the Mishnah at Yavneh and redacted the Talmud at Babylon, who were persecuted by the Crusaders and who were tried on the accusation of ritual murder. Going beyond all these events and errors of the past, we must move towards a common goal  when we shall be one single people that the Lord shall bless, saying: “Blessed be Egypt, my people, Assyria, work of my hands, Israel, my inheritance” (Is 19:25). 

  2. A second objective is that of common service to the same project of covenant. Both Jews and Christians are called to carry out a service towards humanity as a whole. This service constitutes a ministry that can effectively be called priestly, a mission that can unite us without dissolving our individual identities, until the coming of the Messiah, whom we invoke with the words Marana-tha.

If we want to try and describe this priestly ministry of Israel and the Church, we can use the category of “sanctifying His name,” in other words, the decision to make the holiness of God present in ourselves, in families, in society, in creation. Judaism has developed a careful reflection on the precepts that sanctify every moment of life and on the intention of the heart that constitutes its vivifying soul.

Among the many areas of comparison, we can emphasize the defense and the protection of human life at every moment, from birth to death; the commitment to social activism; the different forms of non-violence; the help to the populations that are in conditions of great necessity; the assistance to the sick or the drug-addicts; the education of the young; the fostering of the arts, of culture, of science. In all these efforts we are guided by the fundamental desire to promote the peace that comes from justice. In his address to the representatives of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities who were meeting in Fribourg, John Paul II noted that this peace is based on justice, on respect towards everyone’s rights, as well as on the elimination of the causes of enmity, which are hidden in the human heart.

If the Christian Church feels called, especially in Europe, to be a critical conscience of society, it shall always find the support of the profound religious and ethical teachings of Judaism. If the Church wishes to promote everywhere the dialogue of peace and to be a universal meeting place of all people in the name of Christ, in whom all things shall be recapitulated, it is especially with regard to Judaism that this dialogue and this peace are first of all to be promoted. Jews and Christians, in full respect for the diversity of the specific content of their faiths, must set out to accomplish this fraternal collaboration with intensity and depth; the more they succeed in this task, the more meaningful their presence shall be for the Europe of the third millennium and for the role that Europe has towards the rest of the world.