On a recent Friday evening at a hotel near the Vatican, a group of American Jews, joined by eight cardinals and bishops, welcomed Shabbat together with a festive dinner. The ambiance epitomized today’s highly positive relations between Catholics and Jews.
Catholic attitudes toward the Jewish faith and people are warm. Recognition, at least at the highest levels of the Church, that Catholicism is rooted in Judaism has deepened mutual understanding and encouraged cooperation on joint interests. The dramatic turning point was the landmark Nostra Aetate document adopted at Vatican II in 1965.
Pope Francis’s lifelong engagement with Jews in his native Argentina, especially as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he brought to his own pews the Nostra Aetate message, reenergized Catholic outreach to other faiths, especially to Jews.
“There has never been a pope who has had as much intimacy, as much personal friendship, as much engagement with the Jewish community as Pope Francis,” says Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
But there still is much work to be done. Many Catholics, especially beyond the US, have yet to fully absorb the revolution in Catholic teachings regarding Jews. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency, Rosen underscored that “Christians need to understand Judaism more, since their roots are in Judaism.”
That indeed is a virtue and goal of Pope Francis.
“It is important that we dedicate ourselves to new generations the heritage of our mutual knowledge, esteem and friendship which has, thanks to the commitment of associations like yours, grown over these years,” Pope Francis told an AJC delegation at their private audience the day before the Shabbat dinner.
Rabbi Rosen, AJC’s key interlocutor with the Vatican, utilizing a special prayer booklet created for the Shabbat dinner, led Jews and Catholics alike in singing several Hebrew psalms to the tunes of famous classical pieces of music, such as “Oseh Shalom” to the operatic “O Sole Mio.”
Three of the archbishops present had been on the short list for pope. They and the other prelates engaged in animated conversations at the dinner tables with AJC leaders, touching on many of the topics covered in the meetings held inside the Vatican over several days in mid-February.
The group met with Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin, an Italian appointed by Francis, and with other senior Vatican officials who have regularly engaged world Jewry over the years. The positive heyday of Catholic-Jewish relations permeated all the encounters.
“Change must not remain at Olympian heights,” remarked Father Norbert Hofmann at a joint press conference with AJC’s Rosen following the papal audience. “Education must be transmitted at all levels that this Catholic-Jewish relationship is good.”
Hofmann, who also participated in the Shabbat dinner, has been a key Vatican interlocutor with AJC and world Jewry since 2002.
“Educate young people of the progress in our dialogue so that collaboration can be more visible,” said Hofmann, secretary of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Parolin, who was elevated to cardinal soon after the AJC visit, agreed that we “cannot assume that the achievements of the last generation will be absorbed by the current and next generations. In particular, there is a need to do more on education in Latin America.”
In a small meeting with Rosen and a top AJC delegation, Parolin explored areas for expanding Catholic-Jewish cooperation, notably defending the right of religious freedom.
On this score, there is an appreciation within the Church that the same forces behind anti-Semitism also are violently striking out at Christians across the Middle East and in certain parts of Africa.
The Vatican’s lead representative to the Jewish people, Cardinal Kurt Koch, observed that “with Pope Francis there is a good opportunity to deepen our relations because we have the same roots.” Koch is president of the Holy See’s Commission for Relations with the Jews.
“For the Catholic Church religious roots are very important,” Koch said. “When we know our mother, we are better enriched.”
Or, as Pope Francis has said and repeated in the private audience, Catholics and Jews are in the same family. “Nostra Aetate today constitutes for the Church the sure point of reference for relations with our ‘elder brothers.’” That belief holds much promise for the pope’s upcoming visit to Israel in May, as well as for next year’s 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, that advancements in dialogue and cooperation will continue for the benefit of both Catholics and Jews.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.