Let’s face it. Jews and Christians haven’t exactly been the best of friends over the centuries, what with a long history of blood libels, inquisitions, crusades and the like – not to mention the small question of whether the Jews killed Jesus. Yet, during the past century there was a gradual shift toward improving Jewish- Christian relations, which culminated in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. Commonly known as Vatican II, the council addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world.
Perhaps the most revolutionary change to emerge from the council – at least with regard to Jewish-Catholic relations – was the Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In our Age”) document, which, apart from decrying anti-Semitism in any form, further declared that the blame for Jesus’s death cannot be pinned on Jews – either from the time of his death or present-day Jews.
This paved the way for a new trend of reconciliation between Jews and Christians – one that has since been cultivated into a mutually beneficial relationship of brotherhood. The highlight of the changing relationship came in the year 2000, when on a visit to Israel pope John Paul II inserted the following words into the cracks of the Western Wall: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
Today, there are dozens of centers in the US for Jewish-Christian understanding and the Roman Catholic Church actively seeks ways to correctly present Jews and Judaism within its catechesis.
Yet despite the fact that 45 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, that region seems to have fallen behind its European and North American counterparts and is still plagued by rampant anti-Semitism that finds its roots in old biases against the alleged deicide at the hands of the Jews.
But last week’s tour of Israel, attended by a group of Latin American Catholic priests and their Jewish peers, indicates that the winds are changing in that part of the world too.
Three partnering organizations worked in tandem to turn this unprecedented initiative into a reality: The World Jewish Diplomatic Corps (WJDC), the Center for Jewish- Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) and the Latin American Jewish Congress (LAJC). The organizers view the trip not as an end in itself, but rather as the beginning of a long-term and positive relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities of Latin America, communities that in the past have either been strangers – or worse, estranged – from one another.
The eight priests who came on the week-long trip were selected by the local archbishops of São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Bogota – cities that all have Jewish communities – to ensure that the mission of continued dialogue in the future can also be realized.
One quality the priests share is the fact that they are all young and – for want of a more appropriate word – hip.
The same goes for the two Latin American Jewish leaders – a rabbi and a teacher – who accompanied the priests on the tour.
One vivacious priest, Father Pedro Pereira, speaks of the reaction of local Nazareth residents who witnessed the procession of clergymen visiting their town.
“They saw us together – priests in full garb, collar and all – walking side by side with rabbis with big kippot on their heads. They couldn’t understand what on earth was going on!” Pereira’s answer to how it felt visiting Israel’s Christian holy sites for the first time in his life is rather astonishing.
“I’m not the kind of priest that is much into pilgrimages. What changed me personally was seeing the Jewish holy sites and feeling the heart of Israelis and the Jewish people.”
Regarding the group’s visit to Yad Vashem, Pereira says, “Since my mother died, not a single tear has rolled down my face. But being in the children’s memorial [in Yad Vashem] changed that. It was a very intense moment. I felt shame. Shame on me as a human being. How can humans have done such a thing? It made me think about my own actions and their consequences.”
But perhaps the most remarkable sentiment is the priests’ attitude towards the Jewish Temple.
“As a Catholic, I can feel the presence of the Lord whenever I pray Mass – through the Eucharist,” says Pereira, “I also felt the presence of the Lord by the [Western] Wall. Yet at the same time, something was missing. I actually missed the presence of the Temple. I put myself in your place and truly empathized – it hurt my heart and I felt sorry for you guys that you no longer have your Temple.”
Father Nicolas Garcon, who has 40,000 people in his parish in Bogota, Colombia, takes Pereira’s thought one step further.
“I feel pain that the Temple is gone, but not just for the Jewish people – for me also. Just as Jesus cried for Jerusalem, the Jews cry for Jerusalem today.”
And referring to the immigration of Diaspora Jews to Israel, Garcon says, “I feel so good when I hear that Jews are returning to Jerusalem to rebuild it.
Since I was a child seeing pictures of hassidic Jews, I always felt that Jews were so far, far away from me – both in distance and in time. But being here has made me realize that the Torah is not just an old book, it’s a reality that Jews in this land are living out.”
FOR FATHER Alejandro Velasquez, also from Colombia, coming to Israel has meant shattering many of the stereotypes and legends about Jews that he had heard growing up.
“We hear a lot of negative things about Jews, for example in my country The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is accepted as being genuine and there are also conspiracy theories about Jewish links to Freemasonry. My being here has allowed me to openly ask the question of why there has been so much hatred directed at Jews throughout history. But people are afraid of Jews because they don’t know them.”
He adds that prior to coming here, some cynics tried to convince him that the trip was nothing more than “Jewish propaganda.” So what was the intended nature of the trip? Was it primarily to serve a spiritual function, or was it rather geared toward political or diplomatic ends? According to Jay Shultz, a Jewish Diplomat on behalf of the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the two issues should never be separated.
“Yes, there are indeed deep-rooted spiritual implications from this trip.
Seeing their Jewish roots firsthand, it became relevant for [the priests’] own spirituality, in order to elucidate their own faith. Being here has also allowed them to grasp the religious connection between Christianity and Judaism through the latter’s ongoing connection to the Land of Israel. For example, visiting the City of David as the place where King David composed psalms is amazing. But what makes it that much more tangible and relevant is actually seeing Jews living there today.”
As for Shultz’s own reasons for organizing the initiative, he says, “I do this all as a noble honor, without getting paid, because I believe that strategically working with the 1.3 billionperson Catholic world will very clearly make Israel, and all Jews around the world, safer and stronger... I want to do my all to take care of my family.”
For their own part, the priests all agree that after coming here, Israel turned from a spiritual idea rooted in the past to a physical and geographical reality that is in the living present and collective future of both Jews and Christians alike.
The trip’s itinerary included a twoday seminar at the Center for Jewish- Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Three Orthodox rabbis and two Catholic theologians led panels on various issues within the Christian-Jewish dialogue. Rabbi Eugene Korn, the American director of the CJCUC, posits that thankfully today the relationship between Christians and Jews is steadily transitioning from being mere “dialogue” toward real friendship.
“There is a need for Catholics to understand how Jews see themselves and just how important Israel is for the Jewish people and the religion. Our religious objective was designed to change perceptions and to eliminate hatred, prejudice and religious extremism.
We [Jews] see everyone as enemies because we’re trapped in the past. Our challenge now is not to remain stuck on what our grandparents said, but rather to invest in what our grandchildren will say. Jews need to understand that today the Roman Catholic Church is a good friend of the Jewish people.”
But for Rabbi Gilberto Ventura, a teacher in a Jewish school in São Paulo, the initiative extends further than cultivating religious ties between clergymen of differing faiths. It is also about nurturing a culture of peace and showing that not all Jews are cut from the same cloth.
“In Brazil,” avers Ventura, “they look at the Jewish community as being disconnected from the population at large – perhaps because they think all Jews are rich.”
For him, the trip to Israel was vital in bridging cultural gaps as well as religious ones, and also in showing that every Jew is different from the next.
Ventura comments on the priests’ surprise that Jews can come from such wildly different socio-economic and religious backgrounds, and indeed, that they also come in different colors.
And nothing drove this message home more than the priests’ Shabbat experience in Jerusalem.
Hosted by religious Jewish families for a traditional Friday night meal, the priests were able to become acquainted with Judaism on a more intimate level.
Since family is such an integral part of the Latin American landscape, Father Velasquez notes for him this was the highlight of the trip.
“There was wine of course, and once we drank, the ice was broken and we talked about religious issues. The intellectual level of everyone at the table was very high.”
Father Velasquez also admits to the faux pas of extending his hand in greeting to his Orthodox female host, who did not take it in return. He grins sheepishly, “I was so embarrassed.” No doubt that was a lesson in Jewish religious practices that Father Velasquez won’t forget in a hurry.
Indeed, when this writer came to meet with the group, no hands were proffered, at the priests’ own initiative.
But perhaps the incident symbolizes just how much attitudes have changed since the days when pope Pius X expressed his proselytizing intentions in a letter to Theodor Herzl thus: “We are unable to favor [the Zionist] movement.
We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it.... If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with our churches and priests to baptize all of you.”
Rabbi Pablo Gabe, the rabbi of Kehilat Amihai in Buenos Aires, sums it up as follows: “People think our goal is to build some sort of new religion.
But that isn’t so. They have to continue being Catholics just as we need to continue being Jews. We need to walk together in between our differences, not by pushing those differences out of the way.”
When he returns to Buenos Aires, Rabbi Gabe intends to invite Father Pereira and other Catholics from within his community to Shabbat meals in his home.
Father Pereira, the priest with the mischievous, brace-enhanced smile, adds a final observation.
“The Church works towards justice, truth and peace, and together we must walk with Jews in this direction. But it’s not only an issue between religions – it is also between human brothers who share the revelation of God in making the world a better place. I have no doubt that being [in Israel] on this trip is the will of God.”