We are bad listeners

There was so much more to the papal preacher's homily than comparing the treatment the Church has been receiving over pedophilia scandals with anti-Semitism.

Raniero Cantalamessa 311 (photo credit: AP)
Raniero Cantalamessa 311
(photo credit: AP)
Last week has provided us with some important lessons on Jewish-Christian relations, and in particular on how storms on the horizons of these relations come and go. Just a week ago, in his Good Friday sermon, the Papal household preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the treatment the Church is currently receiving in conjunction with the international pedophilia scandals with anti-Semitism.
The statement was clearly outrageous and drew immediate, and well-justified condemnation from Jewish spokespersons. Fr. Cantalamessa issued an apology to whomever he may have unwittingly hurt. For all intents and purposes the storm was over.
REVISITING THESE events provides some important lessons on how the public perception of Jewish-Christian relations has fallen into the pattern of moving from scandal to scandal, while failing to recognize the real changes that are quietly taking place before our eyes. As we watch the news, we remain blind to the real news. Sensationalist news headlines make us lose sight of what is truly worthy of note, novel and inspiring.
I assume none of the Jewish speakers who reacted to the preacher’s statement even read his homily. They were probably reacting to a journalist who asked for a comment on some statement, and offered an appropriate response. Journalists, lifting a quote from a longer piece, set the agenda, Jewish spokespersons respond, a story is told, a scandal is created and thus our “relationships” are built. A look at what the Franciscan preacher actually said tells another story, that at the very least offsets the negative impressions generated by the statements that have made headlines.
Let us remember the moment. It is Good Friday mass. The homily for Good Friday was the moment most dreaded by Jews for centuries. Following this homily, mobs would set to the streets, and Jews feared for their lives. Passion plays enacted on Good Friday were a constant source of violence towards Jews. More recently, Good Friday has constituted a problem for Jewish-Christian relations, in view of the new Latin version of the prayer for the Jews, released by Pope Benedict.
With this background, it is striking to note what Father Cantalamessa makes of the opportunity. He uses the moment at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of the Pope, to wish Jews a “Good Passover.”
Reading this, I asked myself, when before was a Good Friday sermon used for such purposes? Probably never. Why do we take this gesture of goodwill for granted? Why do we gloss over it in silence? To think of the Jews as brothers in faith during a Papal Good Friday service is the fruit of decades of labor in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. That this could be said so casually and naturally is the real news.
But he does not stop here. He greets us, Jews, with words from the Mishna, quoted in the Hagadda, the most popular of Jewish texts, and echoed in Christian liturgy, a sign of bonding and unity between our communities. How often have we complained that Judaism is not simply the Biblical root, of which Christianity is the branch? How often have we emphasized the need to refer to latter day Judaism in its own right, respecting it as a self-standing religion, and not simply as the Old Testament?
Does not greeting us on Good Friday in words taken from the Mishna-Haggada deliver a powerful message that something here is right and that we have made progress?
We didn’t hear all this because we only noted the comparison of violent attacks on the Church with those perpetrated against the Church. But even here, we failed to hear the Jewish voice quoted by the Franciscan Father, in its fullness. It spoke of living with a common Messianic hope that will reunite us in the love of our common Father. Need I query once more when was the last time that such words were uttered at St. Peter’s on Good Friday? To all this, there is only one appropriate response, recognition and acknowledgement of the quiet yet profound significance of the moment, and so – Thank you, Fr. Cantalamessa.
READING THE homily in its entirety, I am convinced that Fr. Cantalamessa’s intention was misconstrued. It is becoming harder and harder for religious people to deliver a thoughtful message, with some complexity, nuance, and historical and theological depth, without worrying about how one motif will be taken out of context and create headlines, the wrong headlines. Clearly, Cantalamessa didn’t think through the possible consequences of his statement, relying naively on the fact that they were authored by a Jewish person as a guarantee of their acceptability to Jewish ears.
He has been legitimately called to task and has appropriatelyapologized. But we too need to express our regret at failing to hearthe message as it was delivered and for allowing the media to createthe wrong story, while missing the true story. The battle againstselective and superficial representation of our religious message is acommon battle, on which thoughtful religious voices from all religionsmust collaborate.
The theme of the preacher’s homily was going beyond violence. The lastfew couple of days show us yet again that bad listening is itself asource of violence.
The writer is director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, headquartered in Jerusalem.