Father Stravinskas is editor of The Catholic Answer in Mount Pocono, Pa. Rabbi Leon Klenicki is director of interfaith relations for the Jewish anti-defamation organization B'nai B'rith in New York. The two have continued their discussions of Catholic-Jewish relations ever since they published A Catholic Jewish Encounter from the Mind and the Heart (Our Sunday Visitor, 1994). A portion of their recent dialogue about the Jubilee year pardon follows.
Father Stravinskas: Certainly, one of the most important aspects of the biblical year of jubilee was the underlying notion of reconciliation or healing. What would you see as issues of importance for Jews and Christians to look at during this coming year?
Rabbi Klenicki: It is very important to talk about reconciliation-healing. Both are stages of the whole process of what in Hebrew is called Teshuvah, that is, confession and reconciliation with God and humanity. It is part of our liturgy, especially in Yom Kippur, to stress the centrality of confession to God and to fellow human beings about the transgressions of the past year. In this manner, the soul is open for the response of God's forgiveness as well, and this is very important, the forgiveness of the other person of faith, Jewish or Christian. The Yom Kippur liturgy stresses the need to open our hearts to the fellow human person, to get his or her forgiveness that will reach the throne of God.
I have to say personally that each Yom Kippur brings back a similar experience. That is, I wonder what would happen to me if a Nazi or a former junta general in Argentina known for his atrocities would come to me and ask my forgiveness. How would I respond to that?
Father Stravinskas: What would your natural response be? What do you hope your response would be under the impulse of God's grace and assistance?
Rabbi Klenicki: I would say that my first response would be of a passionate surprise. There are too many memories in my heart to respond immediately to such a person. But following the Jewish tradition, I would have to listen to the person asking for forgiveness and point out to him the need of a reckoning of the soul and a response.
That is, that that person has to confess to fellow people and to God his transgressions, the crimes of the past, and to give a response.
That response should result in a change of heart and attitude, as well as the obligation to serve others in charity and friendship. Once that person is transformed, according to Jewish tradition, I can forgive, I can forgive that person, and God will accept his confession. What matters essentially is the inner transformation of the person from evil to good.
Father Stravinskas: I find your example very interesting in light of something I just read a few days ago — a story which has just surfaced about [Rudolf] Hess, one of the chief henchmen of [Adolf] Hitler, who, in incarceration after the war, asked to see a priest to hear his confession.
The area in which he was living was Poland, and they couldn't find a German-speaking priest very readily. And as it turned out, the man that was finally uncovered was a Jesuit who had been the provincial of the Jesuits in Poland during the war, and it was he who was asked to come to hear the man's confession, the man who was actually responsible for the deaths of perhaps dozens, if not hundreds of Jesuit priests, men who had been the responsibility of this priest. And yet, it was he who was called upon to reconcile this individual to God, which, of course, he did.
But we don't hear about the psychological and the spiritual journey that that Jesuit priest took, which I'm sure is very similar to what you are describing for yourself, as well.
Rabbi Klenicki: Thus, would the Christian attitude be to forgive right away or to expect a transformation of the other person, the sinner?
Father Stravinskas: The theology of Christianity would encourage us immediately to respond to the overture of the other person without necessarily probing the motivations of the individual. I should stress that's obviously the ideal for a Christian. But Christians don't lose their human nature at the moment of baptism, and therefore, the natural process, I think, has to kick in for most of us at the same time. Even in the sacrament of penance, as a confessor, the Church instructs me to be sure, reasonably sure, that the person is confessing for proper motivations and has the intention of not repeating such sins in the future. So while there is the clear understanding that God forgives the minute the request for forgiveness is given, there also needs to be moral certitude that God and his mercy are not being mocked by people who simply wish to “get off the hook.”
From a Jewish perspective, what do you see as important topics to “put on the table” for the process of healing, but not simply as a rehashing of difficulties from the past, whether from this century or this millennium or two millennia, but with a view to discussing them so as to move on to the future?
Rabbi Klenicki: We need a joint reckoning. By joint reckoning, I mean the need for looking especially at the last 50 or 60 years of our joint history that has been so dramatic and painful for us Jews, especially in Europe. The Holocaust is a reality that we cannot put aside. It showed the diabolic possibilities of the human being without control, and at times I wonder if I, as a religious person, have done enough to face and fight back those diabolic possibilities of the human being expressed in the horror of Auschwitz, the Gulag or Latin American jails.
Father Stravinskas: What I think it is important to highlight, particularly in regard to this century, which I often refer to as the most horrible of centuries, is perhaps the lesson that when man tries to go without God, these are exactly the things that one should expect. Many people fail to realize that the 20th century was the first in history in which there was a formal decision on the part of “movers and shakers” to establish a world without any divine or transcendent horizon.
We can laugh at the superstitious silliness of the Greeks and Romans with their thousands of gods, but at least there was a reference to a reality beyond ourselves, there was some kind of accountability to some kind of divine being, whereas all the absolute horrors of the 20th century, whether from Communism or Nazism or Fascism or the more recent forms of total materialism and secularism, in each of these instances we find the tremendous difficulties and problems which have been inflicted on the human race precisely by people who have lost their reference to a Supreme Being.
What do you think that we as men and women of faith, whether Christian or Jew, can learn from that situation, and how perhaps we can work together to ensure that the 21st century will not repeat the same mistakes?
Rabbi Klenicki: Our process of reckoning with the 20th century has to be done on our own and together. On the Jewish side, we will have to reckon with modernism, a movement that was a blessing and a curse for us. A blessing, because it allowed the Jewish community to enter, though never integrate, into European society, and a curse, because by that illusion of being accepted in a non-pluralistic society, we lost part of our tradition in that dream. And I feel that perhaps Christians would have to reckon with the same problem. This was beautifully portrayed in the  encyclical of John Paul II, Faith and Reason. Afterward, we together have to deal with and measure those diabolic possibilities of the human being, as I pointed out before.
Father Stravinskas: We all know that in the past 30 years, tremendous strides have been made, specifically in terms of Jewish-Catholic relations. It would seem that if we're going to move forward, we have to acknowledge these positive developments first, because that can become a kind of springboard for further positive action. What would you suggest as the most important advances in our common facing of modernity in the past 30 years?
Rabbi Klenicki: I would stress the following: one is the recognition of each other as subjects of faith. We are not any more “the thing Jew,” that is, an object of contempt in Christian theology for centuries, but rather a subject of faith. A similar process is occurring in the Jewish community, though at times, painfully, I've recognized that we carry on at times a theology of pointing fingers. We have reasons for that, but we also have to recognize that much has changed since Vatican Council II in Catholicism, and after the Holocaust in Christian denominations in Europe and the United States.
The second is the fact that, as religious people, we have to face the problems of our time, secularism in its worst dimension, the lack of belief in the young generations.
The third point would be our joint action as religious people, as a people of God acting in our world, and finally, which I consider crucial, is a reckoning of the period 1933-1945, with all its negative dimensions in the Christian-Jewish encounter.
Father Stravinskas:Finally, as we look at this process of reconciliation and reckoning of the soul, as you're fond of terming it, what do you see as issues that Jews need to address in their own hearts in regard to Christians or specifically Catholics?
Rabbi Klenicki:One area that requires our attention is a Jewish understanding of the mission of Jesus and Christianity to the world. Some of our medieval and contemporary Jewish thinkers and theologians have paid attention to this matter. But still for the common Jewish person, though well-educated, it is very difficult to think in terms of a Jewish understanding of Christianity. I don't use the word “theology” because it's not part of our religious vocabulary. But what I feel that is being developed in our community, though not still at a popular dimension, is a process of understanding the Christian and Christianity as ways of God. This was stressed by Franz Rosenzweig, the German-Jewish theologian who wrote about it in the early ‘30s and is very influential in the Jewish understanding of Christianity, and especially in mine personally.
Father Stravinskas:As we conclude, it dawns on me that perhaps we could ask you to close with a prayer for your Christian brothers and sisters at this point of tremendous significance. I ask for it because, as you know, in the Roman Canon of the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, we refer to Abraham as “our father in faith,” and therefore, we should turn to one of our elder brothers in the faith to ask for his prayer and his intercession as we begin this new development in our lives together.
Rabbi Klenicki:I would say, in the tradition of Abraham, a prayer that I hope will inspire our joint witnessing in the world. It is part of the New Union Prayerbook Gates of Prayer.
May the time not be distant, O God, when your name shall be worshipped in all the earth, when unbelief shall disappear and error be no more. Fervently we pray that the day may come when all shall turn to you in love, when corruption and evil shall give way to integrity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye, when all who dwell on earth shall know that you alone are God. O may all, created in your image, become one in spirit and one in friendship, for ever united in Your service. Then shall your kingdom be established on earth, and the word of your prophet fulfilled: “The Lord will reign for ever and ever.”