The Jewish-Christian Encounter: A Matter of Faith?

Rev. Dr. Remi Hoeckman, O.P.

Secretary of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews

[Paper read at the Conference on "Humanity at the Limit: The Impact of the Holocaust on Jews and Christians" 26-28 April 1998 - University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. Posted with the author's permission.]


Before I came to this Conference, Michael Signer made me understand that he expected to hear from me some new insights about the Conference’s main theme from a Catholic perspective, and particularly from the perspective of my position and experience in the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. I do not know how "new" my insights will be to some of you here, but I can assure you that they are sincere. They emerge from an experience which, for different reasons, may not always match yours but, then, one of the good things about a conference such like this one is precisely the fact that people with different stories are able to share their stories, and to learn from them. History teaches us that where there is no religious space for the other, soon there might be no space at all for the other. That is why my paper is focused on the religious dimension of the Jewish-Christian encounter today.


The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written that for the secularist in our society religion is neither the engine that drives society nor the map that directs its driver, but that it is at most a tape played on a mental stereo to while away the idle hours.1 This statement which unfortunately seems to apply to many people in the West today, including Christians and Jews, is not applicable to me though. I am no secularist but a person of faith, and since the day that I have been entrusted with my present task, I have no more idle hours.

I am a man of faith who does believe in interfaith encounter, but I have a problem with what I feel is an ambiguous use of these words. That which contains great potential in terms of sharing and discovery, growth and promise - especially in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue which provide a space where hearts meet hearts and minds meet minds, and where these can be informed and transformed in the process - is too easily emptied of its religious content and filled with something else.

To me interfaith without faith is an empty word and encounter without the other an empty show. Paraphrasing a statement made by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, I am not ready for a meeting with another faith community in which I am met as an object of observation, judgement and evaluation, rather than as a person of faith.2 In my daily dealings with Jewish and Jewish-Christian "interfaith affairs", "interfaith institutes", "interfaith programs", "interfaith relations", "interfaith dialogue", "interfaith groups", and "interfaith directors", I often have difficulty with finding religious content in those "affairs", "programs" or "institutes". I may have it wrong, but to me interfaith encounter means experiencing the other on a level or in a space where perhaps only souls can meet, under the gaze of God. To me it means to meet with one who might not be in my image but who is nonetheless in the image of God. It means to meet with one whose face I can see «as one sees the face of God» (cf. Gen. 33:10) and feel blessed by it.

When I am saying these things it is because of something which Chief Rabbi Sacks has said recently and which has stayed with me. In September 1997, addressing a conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews at Rocca di Papa, near Rome, on the topic "The Other - Jews and Christians," Rabbi Sacks spoke about the story of Jacob and Esau and the strange encounter which Jacobs had with The One who gave him his new name. Sacks explained (and I am going to quote him rather extensively):

"At that moment, Jacob is cured of wanting to be Esau. For the first time he can meet Esau without aggression or deception or fear. He says to Esau, I have seen your face as one sees the face of God, meaning I have recognised your otherness, and I have let it go. You are not me. I am not you. It is in our mutual otherness that we can have relationship. If I am I and you are you, we no longer threaten one another, for we each have our own blessing. We are affirmed in our otherness by Him who is ultimately Other. The Torah signals that this was not an easy discovery. It took many years, it took a deep inner struggle; after it Jacob limped. But after it Jacob became Israel - he who is content to be different, not to be Esau.

"Judaism and Christianity, each in their different ways, have had to undergo that inner struggle, and we still do. At times, Christians sought to take their brother’s blessing - to be Israel, to carry its name, to take hold of its covenant, to displace it from its relationship with God. At times, Jews faced the opposite temptation - not to be Israel, to be Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, to assimilate, become anonymous, no longer different; to be, in Ezekiel’s words, ¡like the nations, like the other peoples of the earth. In Christianity the temptation is supersession. In Judaism it is secession. In both it is a failure to be ourselves and not another. Yet it is only by being ourselves and not another that we create space for the other to be himself and not us. Only when I-am-not-Thou and Thou-are-not-I, can there be relationship, each affirming the other in his or her difference. And because God lives in relationships. He lives in difference.

"We are others. We are also brothers. We have been so for a long time [...]. When we look back on our past, we find much that we have in common. We trace our ancestry through the prophets and back to Abraham and Sarah, the first people to hear the call. We share many of the same texts, though we read them through different traditions of interpretations. We have shared origins, though our paths diverged [...]. Looking back on this long, strange story of two brothers, we stand hushed for a moment in awe [...].

"It took a long inner struggle, and the darkest night of all, for Jews and Christians to reach the moment when we could meet without fear, each secure in our own blessing, each faithful to our particular truth [...]. We have reached that stage today, and we must never regress. For it is only if we are true to our separate vocations, if Christians are not Jews, and Jews are not Christians, that we bring our respective truths to the world, and live, as brothers, in peace."

I apologise for this long quotation, but to me these phrases are important. They are spoken by a person of faith. They are a language that I can identify with and that is understood by the kind of people that I relate to every day, my students, the people in my church, people that are open to what I have to say. It is a language that springs from a soil that we Christians are feeding on ourselves and that both communities, Jews and Christians, revere. It is a language that creates a healing space which allows me to utterly realize how sad it is that it took such a long time to reach this moment, and above all that it took the "darkest night of all", the Shoah, to hasten its coming. This moment counts and, as Rabbi Sacks has put it with force, "we must not regress".

We must not regress indeed, instead we must join forces and work together in order to let it become a blessed moment for ourselves and humanity. I repeat, we have work to do, and "none of us can do it alone."3 This is obviously not a time to celebrate in forgetful euphoria, we know this too well, but a time to let a memory healed of its wounds become our teacher and the teacher of our children, in order to "ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of the children of the Jewish nation."4 You recognize in these words, I am sure, the words of the Pope "which [as he told the Jews in Poland] "my faith and heart dictate."5

When I listen to these words and to the words of Rabbi Sacks, when I listen to the words - often spoken with hesitation, yet with hope - of the Jewish men and women whom I have the privilege to relate to, not as agents of organizations or promoters of agendas, but as fellow human beings who, just like me, want to reach out and want to be reached, I hear the language of an encounter in which both parties are, from the start and at the same time, neighbours and strangers who in the very encounter experience, discover that in spite of their differences they are also brothers.

Jonathan Sacks has reflected on this point too. "A neighbour is one who is like us," he said. "A stranger is one who is not like us [...]. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like us . A stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like us. That is the most powerful command of the Torah. I believe it to be one of the great truths of all time, and in a century of mass destruction, the most urgent. It is why Jews were commanded to be different."

Sacks shared with us his Jewish self-understanding, pointing out that "throughout history [...] Jews were different to teach that God lives in difference, [that] they were strangers to teach that God loves the stranger, [that] they were not like other people, and yet [that] God set on them His special love, to teach humanity the dignity of difference."

Let me say it again, this is the language of faith and of interfaith dialogue. Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, President of our Commission, in his keynote address to the same ICCJ Conference at which Chief Rabbi Sacks spoke, stated: "Much of the progress accomplished so far in our relations has been the result of dialogue, but our dialogue has tended to remain at a rather superficial level. We have spoken together about our problems, but not about ourselves!" Jonathan Sacks did speak about himself. "I speak as a Jew," he said. "And surely no people has suffered more, or longer, for its faith than ours. Many times our ancestors from Egypt to Auschwitz asked the great question of the book of Psalms, Keli Keli lamah azavtami, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me ?’. They suffered because they were different. At all times, even at the cost of suffering and death, the majority of Jews refused to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith. They were different [...] because they alone had been commanded to be different, to be holy, because ‘I am the Lord your God who have separated you from other peoples’ (Lev. 20:24). Why does God make those He chooses suffer ? Why was there a chosen people? Today, in this century of Auschwitz, we begin to understand the answer."

My friends, this language does not threaten people, it opens their ears and eyes instead. It touches their hearts, penetrates their minds, and helps to shape their concerns and attitudes. It qualifies their perception. It invites them to come near, to become partners in a struggle that, ultimately, both have to face, although for different reasons. It is a language that not only respects the differences but provides room for them, the space that is necessary for a genuine interfaith encounter. "Those who persecuted Jews showed that they could not tolerate difference," Sacks affirmed, and he added the comment that "a civilisation that does not tolerate difference fails the basic moral requirements of humanity." Auschwitz has shown this to be true.

I wish to remind ourselves of the fact that also today the otherness of the other is still a motive for cruel indifference or savage treatment, not only "out there" but also in your continent and in mine, and elsewhere. "In the recent past, in the very heart of Europe, in fact not far distant from the death camps of the Shoah, children have been starved to death because they belonged to the other; women were raped because they were part of the other; men and boys were murdered and buried in mass graves because they were from the other ethnic group."6 That is why the words of Jonathan Sacks are relevant: "We are others. We are also brothers." They provide us with a programme. They are to set the agenda of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In the words of the Pope: "Surely the time has come for us, Jews and Christians, to go beyond the dialogue of the past, and to move ahead in common witness to the religious values that we share, the moral principles placed in our hands by the One who created this world and which are set down in Holy Scriptures that both Jews and Christians revere. That is where the new agenda for Catholic-Jewish relations lies."7 That is how he sees it. That is how we see it. I say it loud and clear.


When I am saying is that to me interfaith without faith is an empty enterprise, I am expressing frustration (perhaps it is anger as well) and concern about the way things often are going. You should be aware, as I am, that much of the work I do amongst my people in order to help them with the reception of the teaching of Nostra Aetate, papal teaching as well as statements made by Conferences of Catholic Bishops in a number of Europeans countries on our relations with the Jews, is at risk to be undone by the very people who believe to be, on the Jewish side, the sole promoters of the new relationship with the Catholic Church, the Holy See, the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Let us admit it: to be too much concerned with bolstering organizational or private ambitions and policies (which is the case) and with the lobbying and media campaigns that go with it - at the expense of what I believe to be an encounter between partners where mutual trust and mutual sensitivity are essential - can easily become counterproductive. In fact it is becoming counterproductive, and so is a type of language that more and more Catholic people resent, yet which is a language that unfortunately sets the tone of many articles and reports, press-releases and interviews, comments and statements - produced by self-proclaimed "Vatican experts" - that continue to appear in the press. Thus it happens that I read in the papers about a letter written by a Jewish agency and addressed to the Holy See, before it actually reaches our desk. It is easy to stick a credibility label to allegations - such as the Catholic Church’s "complicity with historic antisemitism and the Shoah;" Vatican assistance given to "scores of war criminals;"8 "the Church’s clandestine relationship with Nazi Germany,"9 etc. - presenting these allegations to the Jewish public as "commonly accepted" knowledge or introducing them with phases such as "The Vatican is rumored" or "Some believe that".

A growing number of Catholic people, at least in the part of the world that I come from, and who would be well disposed to receive the teaching of the Church with regard to Catholic-Jewish relations, have started to react. Their reactions may not reach your desk, but they do reach mine. They are fed up with unrelenting pressure in matters and issues that not only pertain to Jewish concerns, but that also deeply touch their concerns, convictions, and sensitivities. They refuse to be continually forced into producing so-called "lasting answers to nagging doubts"10 by people who, they suspect, are doing their best to keep those "nagging doubts" alive. They resent the fact that informed Jewish leaders refer to their leader, Pope John Paul II, as "the Jews’ very best friend"11 one day, more or less accusing him of "historical distortion" the next.12 In fact I feel insulted when I read a Jewish paper in which the director of interreligious affairs of a Jewish organization is reported to have referred to Catholic positions that I am identifying with as "a charade of self-righteous responses."13 Is it difficult then to imagine how one feels, when reading in the same article in which "pressure" is the key-word,14 that the director of interreligious relations of another Jewish organization has declared (with regard to one of the present "issues," i.e., the possibility of the Holy See to open at an earlier date than is customary the Vatican archives), that "it is only going to happen if there is enough concern and pressure"? I can assure you that as far as we are concerned, increasing the pressure might decrease the concern. These attitudes, and the kind of language that is inspired by them, may well serve internal agendas (which they probably do) but they do not help the process of reconciliation between the Church and the Jews any further. We should help one another instead. Of course, "one can easily find elements of anti-Semitism in the nooks and crannies of the contemporary church - rogue priests in Poland, remnants of the Fascist Utushi in Croatia."15 It is true, we have people in our community who continue to defy the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium on our relations with the Jewish people. It is true, we do have people who make blunders, ignorant people and people who lack sensitivity, but does the Christian community have a claim to exclusivity here?


Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Rabbi Michael Shevack wrote in the introduction to their excellent little book, Our Age, on "the historic new era of Christian-Jewish understandings," that they wrote it "for those who dare to believe; for those who dare to believe that the past need not condemn the future, that enmity can be transformed into trust, that good can be chosen over evil, that people can change."16 They are right, people can change, but the question is how, and it takes time. "The issue is to reach the conscience of the faith, an effort which is underway," said Tullia Zevi, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities with regard to the Catholic Church, but "these things take time. We are a patient people, and the Church is a patient institution. We move in slow times. The issue is to move in the right direction."17

To move in the right direction is our concern, too. It is the reason why I am asking questions. Could it be that we in our Commission happen to talk to the wrong people? Can we meet with our Jewish partners as a faith community or are we meeting with organizations and structures that carve out spheres of interest which have very little to do with religion and develop separate agendas in their relations with us? Are we trapped? On both sides? I am afraid we are. We are trapped by history and memory, by our perceptions and expectations which are shaped by them and, on both sides, by a disability to cope with them.

I do want to listen to my Jewish friends. I refuse to suffer what Jonathan Sacks calls "the strange contemporary blindness to Jewish history - history that could be written in terms of wanderings and expulsions, inquisitions and pogroms, martyrdom and exclusion, the powerlessness and homelessness of ‘the wandering Jew.’"18 I do realize that "we cannot understand where we are unless we first understand how we came to be there," and I quote Sacks again, "Israel cannot be understood as simply a secular democratic state on the European model, or American Jewry as a typical version of American pluralism and denominationalism. These are part [ . . . ] of the Jewish story. The Israeli and American Jewish communities still carry within them the pains and tensions of the European Jewish experience, and even today they are shaped by what they were created to forget."19 I do know this. I want to know this. But I want to know this as a free man, not as a prisoner of someone else’s past or of someone else’s agenda today.

I am fully aware of the long way we have come and of the long way we have to go. However, as Tullia Zevi says, "the issue is to move in the right direction," and we will move in the right direction as long as we are willing to move together, step by step, making sure that the past illuminates the path instead of obscuring it. Knowledge and respect illuminate; contempt, fear, or arrogance obscure. However, knowledge can obscure as well when it is partial, unilateral, or polarized around "chosen" issues. As far as Jewish knowledge about Christians is concerned, the Jewish community has the right to know not only what we are or what we have done, but also who we are and what we are doing. The same is true of Christian knowledge about Jews, in this country, in Israel, in Europe, and indeed everywhere. "We all know the abyss of ignorance in both our communities concerning the other, which includes dangerous myths and prejudices," Geoffrey Wigoder admitted in his address at our International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee meeting in Jerusalem in May 1994.

With regard to Israel, in February of last year I participated in what I thought was an excellent symposium on the future of Catholic-Jewish relations in Israel/Palestine/The Holy Land.20 It also took place in Jerusalem. At the Symposium a Jewish voice spoke up, Daniel Rossing, an educator who has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue in the West for more than twenty years, and who is now living in Israel and deeply involved in close relations with the different Christian communities in the Land. Rossing realized, as all of us present there did, that we were dealing with an extremely sensitive and difficult topic, yet he was determined to speak his mind on it. "I think it is obvious to all who have labored in the vineyard of Jewish-Catholic relations that nearly all of the changes which have brought about the vast improvements in relations have taken place on the Catholic side," he said, and "in the light of the historic record of the Church’s relations with the Jewish people, it is fully understandable that the dialogue in the West has for the most part been a one-way street, as least in terms of the re-examination of traditional attitudes."

However, Rossing expressed sincere hope that today the "historic changes in the attitudes of Christians towards Judaism and Jews" which have occurred since the Second Vatican Council, "will also enter the consciousness of the inhabitants of this land [Israel], and most especially the hearts and minds of Jews [ . . . ] among whom the changes are so little known." "We have to honestly admit that there are virtually no indigenous Jewish-Catholic interfaith relations or dialogue in this land," he said, "today, in and around Jerusalem, there is hardly any contact between Jews and local Christians [ . . . ]. In Galilee, where one finds a majority of Christians in the land living alongside a minority of the Jews in the land, there is some contact, both in daily life and in the framework of the many organisations whose activities are designed to promote Arab-Jewish existence and cooperation. However, these contacts and activities are for the most part characterized by, indeed premised upon, a conspiracy of silence with regard to anything that touches upon religious faith and identity."

In that part of Israel there is a great deal of fruitful cooperation between the many Catholic educational, medical, and social welfare institutions and Jews working in these fields. However, Daniel Rossing pointed out, "important as these cooperative relations are, they cannot be counted as interfaith."21

Rossing realizes, as I do, that interfaith means something else. Moreover, he seeks to understand why even the limited number of Jews who are open, indeed committed, to interfaith relations have not entered into an interfaith dialogue with the Christian communities there. That is why he reviewed articles on interfaith relations in Israel (as I have done too, and not only in Israel), and he found out that "they all place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Christians," using a language that (I am still quoting Rossing) "in my Jewish ears [ . . . ] has a ring similar to that of terminology [ . . . ] which was once used [by Christians] to explain why we Jews are unable to see the light." The fact "that the authors of the articles apply the same judgmental terminology [ . . . ] to many of their fellow Jews does not mitigate the insult to the dignity of the Christian communities and their leaders," he said, adding the comment that "at the very least, one can say that this is hardly an effective way to communicate to the Other that you are sincerely interested in dialogue."

Thus Daniel Rossing is able to understand me when I speak to him about these matters the way I do to you. We share a similar concern. We speak the same language. We learn from each other. "I assume that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with learning from one’s partner in dialogue," he said, recalling that "the key factor which produced the turnabout in Jewish-Christian relations in the West, and which has been the driving force behind all the advances in those relations over recent decades, was a fundamental change of heart and attitude on the part of the majority faith community. Christians, and in the most far-reaching ways the Catholic Church, stopped defining and judging Jews and Judaism according to Christian criteria, and began laboring diligently to understand Jews as Jews understand and define themselves. The task is complex and difficult," he said, "but the path is clear [ . . . ]. There will be no significant breakthrough in this country in the area of interfaith relations in general, and Jewish-Catholic relations in particular, until there is a similar change of heart and mind, and a sincere reaching out, on the part of the dominant Jewish community in this land."22

Rossing then briefly indicated some preliminary steps which he feels are necessary to lay the foundations for the possibility of honest interfaith relations in Israel (and I would say not only in Israel), confessing that the specific steps which he chooses to emphasize reflect similar steps taken by the Catholic Church in order to pave the way for constructive dialogue with Jews and Judaism. He made it clear that these steps should be viewed as "a mandatory cleansing of the heart and mind before entering the sacred space of dialogue." Yet he also made it clear that in his opinion the basic paradigms and present agenda of Jewish-Catholic relations and dialogue in the West are inappropriate to the pursuit of Jewish-Catholic relations and dialogue in the Holy Land. He called for a certain reversal of roles in Jewish-Catholic relations in Israel relative to such relations in the West, asking Catholics and indeed every Christian community in the Middle East to try to understand that a total reversal of roles relative to dialogue in the West is not possible. "The temptation will be great to focus on our own deep pain, or on the injuries caused to Christians [in the area] by another faith community, rather than to honestly confront the very tangible, as well as many subtle, ways in which Christians in this land are hurt and offended by Jews," he said, "but although there are elements of a ‘teaching of contempt’ in our [Jewish] tradition, we do not bear the burden of a 2,000 year history of persecuting Christians."

These words convey the pain of the "inner struggle" to which also Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has referred. It is the pain of a person and a people that a long and tragic history has left severely wounded. It is the pain of a man who seeks both to be healed himself and to let the other be healed. Therefore, he affirmed, "it is vitally important to us [Jews] that the Catholic Church continue to reach out to us where we are and as we understand ourselves." I would like to add that it is equally important to us Christians that the Jewish community seek to gain the strength and the wisdom to reach out to us, too, for the benefit of both our peoples and indeed for the benefit of all peoples. Both our communities are in need of healing and both need the help of the other for it. Whoever is able to see this, Jew and Christian alike, will make the work of the "mandatory cleansing of the heart and mind before entering the sacred space of dialogue," the sacred space in which Jacob was enabled to turn to his brother saying, "I have seen your face as one sees the face of God."


Eugene Fisher in an article entitled, "Catholic Grapplings with the Shoah and Its Theological Implications" has written, "If there was a temptation to silence in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics in the face of the intractable realities of the Shoah, that silence has been shattered by the increasingly vocal controversies between our two communities in recent years."23 Although much of what I have shared with you so far comes from such an experience, I can assure you that it is my deepest wish and desire to see these controversies come to an end. They are bad news. The good news is that despite them the dialogue goes on. "Despite the rhetoric, the fabric of our relations has not torn," Eugene Fisher states, and to the question "what, exactly, are Jews saying to us underneath the often hurtful rhetoric thrown at us via the media?"24 he answers: "What Jews are saying in essence is no more and no less than what the prophets and Jesus said to the world in earlier generations: ‘Repent and sin no more!’ It is a timeless and a timely message. For Christians to speak of reconciliation with Jews in this, as the Pope has rightly called it, ‘the century of the Shoah,’ we must take the first step, which is repentance, a heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul."25

I believe that we are doing this in the Catholic community by implementing the Council’s mandate (Nostra Aetate, n. 4). Pope John Paul II is leading us in this effort. I would like to single out just a couple of points that are expressed very clearly in his teaching: "No dialogue between Christians and Jews can overlook the painful and terrible experience of the Shoah;"26 "The days of the Shoah marked a true night of history, with unimaginable crimes against God and humanity;"27 "We Christians approach with immense respect the terrifying experience of the extermination, the Shoah, suffered by the Jews during World War II;"28 "Joint collaboration and studies by Catholics and Jews on the Shoah should be continued."29

Furthermore, in his address to the new ambassador of Germany to the Holy See, he said, "It was really the Second World War which [ . . . ] made many people aware of what fate and guilt mean to all peoples and individuals. We think of the millions of people, most of them totally innocent, who died in the war [ . . . ]. In this context we should also mentioned the tragedy of the Jews. For Christians the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance; thereby we can overcome every form of anti-Semitism and establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Old Covenant. The Church [ . . . ] ‘deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source’ [Second Vatican Council, Declaration Nostra Aetate n. 4]. Guilt should not oppress and lead to self-agonizing thoughts, but must always be the point of departure for conversion."30

This reminds us of what Rabbi Awraham Soetenendorp, a survivor of the Shoah, told us at the Eisenach Conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews in 1995. He then said: "The real meaning of repentance (teshuvah) is not to be burdened with guilt but to learn from experiences and to turn the mistakes and the transgressions of the past into a passion for a new future."31 Rabbis Jack Bemporad and Michael Shevach are telling us the same thing: "No one should be so obsessed with the past that they prevent themselves from moving into the future. No one should live in the past," they affirm in their book that I have already mentioned. Yet, they rightly point out, "the past is not just something you should toss away and forget." "Quite to the contrary, it must be remembered, heeded, learned from, so that it will never repeat itself."32 That is why the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has recently published We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, a document which is addressed to the Catholic faithful throughout the world, not only in Europe where the Shoah took place, and where several Catholic Bishops’ Conferences have courageously and responsibly taken their stand in this regard (in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, France, Italy, and Slovakia).

The numerous reactions to this document are mixed of course, since an evaluation, a perception, very much depends on the expectations one has. I think that the reaction which we received from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, written by Judith Banki, who is the Program Director, sums it up well: "This long-awaited document does not break new ground," the reaction states, "it incorporated much that has been said before. However, augmented by a historical overview and molded into a single statement addressing the most traumatic and painful events in Jewish history, it adds the Church’s moral authority to the need to understand what gave rise to the greatest crime of the twentieth century, and to remember it - ‘for there is no future without memory’ [ . . . ]. When Nostra Aetate [ . . . ] was promulgated in 1965, it was immediately criticized by Jewish leaders as a compromise, an insufficient and over-cautious document. Later Vatican documents, including the catechetical Notes of 1985, were similarly criticized. Yet these very documents laid the groundwork for a new relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. Key elements are now routinely invoked by Catholic and Jewish leaders alike. Implementation made the difference. The Church’s expression of human solidarity should guide our footsteps as we seek to implement the teaching and preaching opportunities inherent in this document, which lays out a challenging agenda for the future."

Somehow the Pope anticipated this when he told Jewish leaders in Budapest in 1991: "Today, after the period of darkness when it seemed as though the Jews would be completely exterminated, you are here once more and making a significant contribution to Magyar national life. I rejoice at your active presence, which reveals the new vitality of your people. But, at the same time, I recall each and every one of the Jews - women and children, old men and young - who, though they lost their lives, kept their faith in the Lord’s promises [ . . . ]. Our gaze now turns from the past to a future of reconciliation in justice. Once again, I deplore and condemn, together with you, the wickedness which made you suffer and which brought about the death of so many others. Of course, we must try to ‘purge the evil from our midst’ (cf. Deut. 17:7), but what concerns us now is not desire for revenge on the wicked, since it is fitting to leave the supreme judgment to God, but a commitment to ensure that never again can selfishness and hatred sow suffering and death [ . . . ]. The hard quest for justice, love, and peace must begin with ourselves [ . . . ]. Therefore, with God’s powerful help, true liberation from evil is a continuous crossing of the Red Sea, and involves a patient struggle, through which we have to progress by means of a daily conversion of heart, or teshuva. In repentance, fasting, works of mercy [ . . . ]. Knowing our weakness, and trusting in the strength of God who works in us and delivers us from evil, let us have recourse to the Lord who sets us free."33

Such is the Holy Father’s vision, totally realistic and totally anchored in faith. His vision meets the vision of the person of faith with whom I started my story, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote in The Tablet: "There are two quite distinct challenges to religious leadership as this century and this millennium draw to their close. One challenge is very simple. We have to restate for a new generation a compelling sense of the sheer beauty and majesty of the Judeo-Christian ethic. And we can do it. We have to repeat again for children who have not heard it and need to hear it, our belief in the sanctity of human life as bearing God’s image and his likeness [ . . . ]. And there is the second challenge that we must as religious people face fairly and honestly. For the real secular challenge to religion does not come from any scientific would view. It comes from the voice of conscience itself, from the claim that religion has sometimes made us passive in the face of human suffering, has even itself contributed, God forbid, to human suffering. Until religions can live at peace with one another, they will not command the respect of our young people. They will be seen as part of the problem, and not as part of the solution. Those are the two great challenges. Let me here and now pay tribute in both regards to the work over these last few decades of the Catholic Church itself, which in recent years has been both an extraordinarily powerful moral voice, reminding us of those eternal truths that we have been in such great danger of forgetting, and which has shown, especially in the field of Catholic-Jewish relationships, that religions can learn to live at peace with one another, that we can begin to heal the pain of centuries and meet in understanding and mutual respect. It is not easy to be a person of faith. But let us realize that every single word of faith that you or I speak touches and strengthens the faith of other people [ . . . ]and that it is by sharing our faith, even where our faiths differ, that we recreate a world of faith for our children."34


In our age it is not easy to be a person of faith indeed. Neither is it easy for us, Christians and Jews, in this post-Holocaust period to let our encounter be truthfully an interfaith encounter. Yet our relations not only involve (and I am borrowing the words from Rabbi Leon Klenicki) "persons of flesh and blood, but also continents of faith." "God is our common ground and sense," Klenicki says in an article on the need for a theological discussion in the interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews; "our faith commitments are areas of sacredness" which can meet in the sacredness of God’s Presence.35

It is in this sacred space that the past ought to be remembered, that memory can be healed, and that present challenges that both faith commitments are faced with in today’s world should be discussed.36 It is in this space that we should ask our questions beyond contempt, triumphalism, or self-righteousness. Where else can Christians overcome the triumphalism of power and Jews the triumphalism of pain?37 Where else can we believe, trust, and be changed? Where else can we repent, forgive, and be forgiven? In the words of Jonathan Sacks, where else can Jacob meet his brother without aggression or deception or fear? It took them many years. It took a deep inner struggle. After it Jacob limped. But after it Jacob became Israel.

The Pope sees the basis of our encounter not merely in reciprocal respect, but in our faith in the one, true God.38 Or, as he put it in addressing the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith on 22 March 1984, "the respect we speak of is based on the mysterious link which brings us close together, in Abraham, and through Abraham, in God who chose Israel and brought forth the Church from Israel [ . . . ]. All of us, Jews and Christians, pray frequently to Him with the same prayers, taken from the Book which we both consider to be the word of God. It is for Him to give to both religious communities, so near to each other, that reconciliation and effective love which are at the same time His command and His gift (Cf. Lv 19:18; Mk 12:30)."39 "In spite of this [nearness], our respective religious identities have divided us, at times grievously, through the centuries," he told the Jewish community in Sao Paolo, Brazil, on 3 July 1980. But "this should not be an obstacle to our now respecting this same identity, wanting to emphasize our common heritage and in this way to cooperate, in light of this same heritage, for the solution of problems which affect contemporary society, a society needing faith in God, obedience to His holy laws, active hope in the coming of His kingdom." In other words, the Pope does not think of Catholic-Jewish relations in merely secular terms, but in religious terms, in terms of faith.

Ambassador Shmuel Hadas, the first ambassador of Israel to the Holy See, was well aware of this when he addressed the Pope on the occasion of the presentation of his credentials on 29 September 1994. "Your Holiness," he said, "‘The Holy See and the State of Israel, mindful of the unique character and universal importance of the Holy Land and aware of the unique nature of the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews . . .’ These eloquent and meaningful words introduced the preamble of the Fundamental Agreement between the holy See and the State of Israel, which on last December 30 paved the way to the normalization of relations between the Holy See and Israel, overcoming an obstacle to progress in Jewish-Catholic rapprochement. Obviously," he said, "this is not the conventional language of international diplomacy. It could not be otherwise . . ."


I would like to conclude my paper with two paragraphs. One is from an address which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave at a conference held in Jerusalem in 1994, a few weeks after the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel. The other one was written in December 1987 by Judith Banki, who was then Associate National Director for Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, in a paper entitled, "Catholics and Jews Confronting the Holocaust Together."

Cardinal Ratzinger: "After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance permits no deferral [ . . . ]. Jews and Christians should accept each other in profound inner reconciliation, neither in disregard of their faith nor in its denial, but out of the depth of faith itself. In their mutual reconciliation they should become a force for peace in and for the world . . ."

Judith Banki: "Let us resolve to pursue [our efforts] toward the goal of understanding and combating the pathology of group hatred and persecution, in an atmosphere free of polemics. We are not responsible for the prejudices of the world into which we were born, but we are responsible for fighting them. We are not accountable for past events over which we had no control, but we are accountable for the future. We are jointly responsible for facing history and for forging new traditions of human and spiritual solidarity - for the sake of our children, our world, and the sanctification of the One who is Holy to all of us."

To this I say: Amen!


1. Cf. The Perspective of Faith. Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age, London, 1991, p. 3.

2. Cf. Leon Klenicki, "The Need For A Theological Discussion In the Interfaith Dialogue: A Proposal" in Atonement, March/April 1994, p. 1.

3. A.J. Heschel, "No Religion is an Island" in Union Theological Seminary Quarterly, 21:2,1 (January 1996).

4. Pope John Paul II, Address given on the occasion of a concert held in the Vatican on 7 April 1994 to commemorate the Shoah.

5. 9 June 1991.

6. Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy at the ICCJ Conference cited above.

7. Pope John Paul II, Address to the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, 26 March 1998. Cf. my paper "Catholic-Jewish Relations After World War II - A Catholic Assessment," delivered at the Symposium on The Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel, the Catholic University of America/Columbus School of Law, Washington DC, 8-9 April 1997.

8. Cf. Institute of the World Jewish Congress, An Unfinished Agenda, Policy Dispatch n. 23, November 1997.

9. Eric J. Greenberg, in The Jewish Week, 23 May 1997.

10. Cf. Institute of the World Jewish Congress, An Unfinished Agenda, Policy Dispatch n. 23, November 1997.

11. Cf. The Jewish Standard (New Jersey), 10 October 1997.

12. Cf. Institute of the World Jewish Congress, An Unfinished Agenda, Policy Dispatch n. 23, November 1997]. Pol Castel ["Looking for the Way Together in Jewish-Christian Dialogue," in America, 17 December 1994, p. 20] cites Irving Greenberg, "an Orthodox Rabbi who opened new vistas on the world waiting at the end of the road that is built and rebuilt out of creative encounter," about what he, Irving Greenberg, thinks is the unfinished agenda: "The unfinished agenda of the Jewish-Christian dialogue is the recognition of the profound interrelationship between both." That is why Jews and Christians, "fellow travelers in the divine plan of redemption" [Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, cited by Pol Castel], are called to stand together in facing and responding to a common agenda which, from the Jewish point of view, Rabbi Irving Greenberg describes as follows: "Judaism as a religion of redemption believes that in ages of great destruction, one must summon up an even greater response of life and re-creation. Nothing less than a messianic moment could possibly begin to correct the balance of the world after Auschwitz. This is a generation called to an overwhelming renewal of life, a renewal built on such love and such power that it would truly restore the image of God to every human being in the world."

13. Cf. Eric Greenberg’s article in The Jewish Week, cited above.

14. E.g., "Jewish leaders are increasing their pressure on the Vatican;" "documents released under pressure . . ."

15. Marshall Berger, a Jewish lecturer at the Law School of the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) in Moment, December 1997, p. 24.

16. New City Press, New York, 1996, p. 10.

17. Cf. Celestine Bohen, "The Pope’s in a Confessional And the Jews Are Listening," in The New York Times of 30 November 1997, p. 12.

18. "Love, Hate, and Identity," in First Things, n. 77, November 1997, p. 27.

19. Ibid.

20. At the Van LeerInstitute, 10-11 February 1997. The Symposium was co-sponsored by the Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Foundation, FAITH, ICCI, IJCIR.

21. My italics.

22. Rabbi Henry Siegman, "Ten Years of Catholic-Jewish Relations: A Reassessment," in Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985 published by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, Rome, 1988, pp. 27-45: "Taking full advantage of the prerequisite of the injured party, Jews have successfully managed the dialogue so that it has focused entirely on what we consider to be Christian failings; we have not been compelled to examine ourselves and the problematic of our own theology and traditions - at least not within the context of dialogue. I suppose that Christian forbearance with this one-sided situation is compounded of a sense of guilt and of noblesse oblige. However, it is a situation which cannot persist for long [ . . . ] because our Christian partners are not likely to continue the dialogue on these terms [ . . . ]. We have been forthright in calling Christianity to account, but we have been somewhat less than daring in initiating a process of self-examination." "I have come to the conclusion that there is something particularly distortive of the relationship, and misleading of its genuine character and depth in the frenetic efforts in which we engage with such monotonous regularity to extract public statements from Christian officials at every turn in Jewish affairs. Indeed, it seems to have become a major industry of American Jewish life, whose major beneficiaries, insofar as I can tell, are the advertising agencies and metropolitan newspapers. Of course, Jewish existence continues to be fragile and vulnerable, and we need understanding friendship and public support as desperately as we ever did. But if these are to have any meaning and particular consequence, then they must be spontaneous expressions rather than ritualistic responses to heavy-handed pressure exerted by Jewish organizations, including my own."

23. In The Holocaust Now - Contemporary Christian and Jewish Thought, edited by Rabbi Steven L. Jacobs, East Rockaway, N.Y., 1996, p. 237.

24. Ibid., pp. 238-239.

25. Ibid., p. 241.

26. Pope John Paul II, Address to the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, 6 December 1990.

27. Idem, Sunday prayer of the Regina Coeli, 18 April 1993.

28. Idem, Letter to Archbishop John L. May, then President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the USA, 8 August 1987.

29. Idem, Address to Jewish Leaders in Miami, 11 September 1987.

30. 8 November 1990. My italics.

31. Cf. "Towards a Europe of Compassion," in Common Ground (the Journal of the Council of Christians and Jews in Great Britain), n. 11, 1995, p. 24.

32. Op. Cit., p. 64.

33. 18 August 1991.

34. "From slavery to freedom: the journey of faith," in The Tablet, 10 June 1995, pp. 734-735.

35. In Atonement, March/April 1994, p. 1

36. Pope John Paul II, Message to the Jews from around the world gathered in Poland in April 1993 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, 6 April 1993: "We remember, and we need to remember, but we need to remember with renewed trust in God and in his all-healing blessings." "As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world (Cf. Gen.12:2 ff.). This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another. This will effectively occur if we are united in the face of the evils which are still threatening indifference and prejudice, as well as displays of anti-Semitism."

37. Cf. Leon Klenicki, op. cit., p. 2. See also Henry Siegman, op. Cit., who already in 1976 outlined his perception of what was then happening in Jewish-Catholic relations: "It seems reasonably clear that the process is an irreversible one. The capacity to hurt one another is still there, and - more likely than not - will not remain unexercised. The areas of misunderstanding still remain vast. But the notions of an earlier Christian triumphalism of the Jewish people as role-players in someone else’s Passion play is a thing of the past, and that is a far-reaching change indeed. It also frees the Jewish people to shed its own particular kind of triumphalism, the definite triumphalism of the persecuted and the abused, and to relate in a more open and creative way to the world about it." I hope so.

38. Pope John Paul II, Address to Jewish leaders in Brasilia, 15 October 1991.

39. Idem, Address to Representatives of Jewish Organizations, 12 March 1979.