ROME — Fifty years ago, the way the Catholic Church related with other religions changed forever when the Second Vatican Council declaration Nostra Aetate sparked a wave of unprecedented welcome — a revolution one rabbi says has gained steam with every pope since.

“St. John XXIII was the revolution. He deserves the copyright,” Rabbi David Rosen told CNA.

“He really transformed the relationship from one in which the Jews were seen as having no integrity and legitimacy of their own,” he said. Rather than seeking to make Jews validate Christianity through blame and suffering, the saint turned that view around.

“John XXIII is ... — I would say if the Jews could have canonized him, they would have done it long before the Catholic Church would have done it,” he said.

Rosen is international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, as well as a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is also part of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations With the Jews.

The rabbi was present in Rome alongside representatives of other religions from all over the globe for an Oct. 26-28 conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, the conference is meant to serve as a point of interreligious dialogue and reflection.

 

Catholic-Jewish Relations

When Nostra Aetate was promulgated by Blessed Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965, it marked the first time bishops had explicitly said that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religious traditions, urging Catholics to pursue “dialogue and collaboration” with people of all religions.

In particular, the document radically reshaped Catholic relations with the Jewish world, decrying “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” It stated that “what happened in [Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

In his comments to CNA, Rosen said the conference has been excellent and has so far generated “intense, sometimes passionate” discussion, as well as a strong spirit of fraternity and engagement among religions.

Among the religions represented at the conference are Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism.

This type of gathering is “definitely something that was not possible before Nostra Aetate,” the rabbi said. “There’s never been as much interfaith cooperation and engagement in human history as there is today, and it’s an exponentially growing industry,” which is thanks in great part to the declaration.

 

Progress With the Popes

Though the document marked a significant leap in the bettering of relations between Jews and Catholics, the process actually started before the Council, with steps already put in place by St. John XXIII, Rosen said.

The “Good Pope” is known to have saved thousands of Jewish lives while serving as apostolic nuncio to Turkey during World War II, creating false, though official-looking, documents and papers for Jewish refugees seeking to escape into Palestine. He formed a network of other Church officials and neutral politicians, whom he enlisted to assist him in his efforts to save and protect the Jewish people.

While Pope, he granted roughly 120 private audiences to Jewish individuals and groups, including representatives of the government of Israel.

In the early years of his papacy, which lasted 1958-1963, he removed several prayers from the Church’s sacramental and liturgical celebrations either holding Jews responsible for Christ’s death, encouraging resentment toward the Jewish people or praying for their conversion.

In calling the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII provided the necessary space to re-examine the Church’s relationship with other religions, which culminated in the promulgation of Nostra Aetate.

Rosen noted that while Blessed Paul VI certainly followed in St. John XXIII’s footsteps in publishing the document, as well as being the first pope to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Church’s relationship with the Jews made “a quantum leap” during the papacy of St. John Paul II.

 

St. John Paul II

This leap was due both to St. John Paul II’s “own personal history and for the tragedies not only of Poland, but of the Jewish tragedy, which he felt in his own flesh and his own personal experiences,” the rabbi noted.

One of the Polish saint’s greatest childhood friends, Jerzy Kluger, was Jewish. Kluger was also present at St. John Paul II’s meeting with Poles in Rome shortly after his election.

One of the first meetings a new elected pope holds is with the community of his home country, and the saint’s Jewish friend was not left out.

St. John Paul II had a long track record of papal firsts in relation to the Jewish people: In 1979, he was the first pope to go to Auschwitz and pay homage to the Jewish people who died in the extermination camps; in 1986, he became the first pope since the first century to enter a synagogue; he was the first pope to acknowledge the state of Israel in 1993, and he was the first pope who publicly recalled the Holocaust, at the Vatican in 1994. He was also the first pope to host and honor a long-term Jewish friend in a pontifical residence.

Rosen pointed specifically to St. John Paul II’s 1986 visit to the Roman synagogue and his 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, saying those trips “created images in the world that demonstrated this radical new relationship with the Jewish people, which he was totally passionate about.”

 

New Heights With Francis

While Benedict XVI continued to build on St. John Paul II’s legacy, “we’ve reached a new height with Pope Francis,” the rabbi said.

“There’s never been a pope in history, probably since the first, since Peter, who knew the Jewish community as well as this pope has done in his own adulthood,” he said, noting how, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio often visited synagogues and Jewish celebrations.

So when it comes to Pope Francis, “we’re not dealing with someone who just understands cognitively or even in his heart that this has to be done.”

Francis, Rosen said, is somebody who has it “in his innards, as if it were in his intestines [that he] understands the Jewish reality and has engaged with it. And that’s very definitely a new, significant stage in the wonderful transformation of our relationship.”

As part of the celebration surrounding the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Pope Francis dedicated his Wednesday general audience to interreligious dialogue.

In addition to the Pope’s own catechesis on the subject, other speakers at the audience included Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

On the topic of dialogue, Rabbi Rosen said that he doesn’t accept it as just “a tool” to be used, but sees dialogue as “a value in and of itself.”

“To know one another is essential to love one another, as we are called to do, and that love is basically what changes the world,” he said, noting that Pope Francis’ focus on dialogue is a call to address contemporary challenges together.

He cited issues surrounding the environment and the defense of the sanctity of human life as areas in which all religions must work to benefit humanity.

Rosen said, “These are areas where there’s so much to do and where we need to work more and more together, especially in the face of the terrible challenges” of growing violence, extremism and immigration.