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Nostra Aetate 50th Anniversary

Baltimore Jewish Council

I am very grateful to be with all of in that spirit of friendship and cooperation which characterizes the Jewish and Roman Catholic communities here in Baltimore and far beyond. I wish to thank Art Abramson and indeed the entire Council for all the ways we partner in serving the common good of our community, most especially those who lack the basic necessities of life, the young who are in need of a good education, and the vulnerable whose dignity we seek to affirm.

I am also honored to offer a few reflections this afternoon on Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that pertains to interfaith relations and focuses on the unique relationship of Christianity and the Jewish faith. That declaration marks its 50th anniversary on December 7th of this year and so it is timely for us to reflect once again on this document and on what has transpired since it was issued. Time is limited, so I will try to focus on essentials.

First, a word about what led up to the document. Church documents seldom if ever spring up spontaneously. They are the result of prior relationships, study, reflection, and prayer. This is true of Nostra Aetate.

Here in Baltimore, I think of the figure of James Cardinal Gibbons. Long before there was an ecumenical or interfaith movement, the 9th Archbishop of Baltimore promoted religious tolerance not only for Catholics but for people of all religions. In 1890, when Jews were being persecuted in Russia, Gibbons spoke out. Invited to offer comment by the editors of the Jewish Exponent, he responded immediately with these words: “I am disposed to speak very strongly in this matter as I feel it at heart.” Again, in 1905 he was part of a committee of prominent Baltimore citizens who sought to provide relief for Russian Jews and in 1919, after World War I, he encouraged his priests to promote and contribute to the Jewish War Relief Committee. After the Cardinal’s death, Rabbi William Rosenau, who had known the Cardinal well for over 30 years, wrote an article in which he cited the Cardinal’s readiness to cooperate and assist “whenever Gentile co-operation and assistance were needed for the Jewish people.” As I stated publicly in the Baltimore Sun, Lawrence Cardinal Shehan and William Cardinal Keeler contributed greatly to this legacy of mutual friendship and cooperation which the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities enjoy here in Baltimore. I would be remiss not to mention as well the wonderfully warm relationship which Bishop Denis Madden enjoys with the Baltimore Jewish Council and indeed with the international religious community at the highest levels.

Casting my net even wider, I would also mention Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, now a saint, who was Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey during World War II. He had personal experience with the tragic fate of Jews during the Nazi reign of terror and saved the lives of thousands of Jews from extermination. Some say that his personal experience contributed to his desire for a document on Jewish-Roman Catholic relations, as did a meeting in 1960 with the eminent Jewish historian Jules Isaak. In deciding that the II Vatican Council would address Jewish-Roman Catholic relations, John XXIII and his co-worker, Cardinal Augustin Bea, were deeply aware of the need to come to terms with a long and troubled history and to chart a new course.

The Significance of Nostra Aetate
Putting together a Council document is not an easy task and like the other 15 council documents, Nostra Aetate has a complex history. Thanks to the help of God’s good Spirit, the complexities did not prevail. Instead, Nostra Aetate was overwhelmingly approved by the Council Fathers. It was embraced by Pope Paul VI, by John Paul II, by Pope Benedict XVI, and most recently by our beloved Pope Francis whose own history includes many personal relationships with the Jewish community, most notably Rabbi Abraham Skorka; their conversations are recounted in the book, On Heaven and Earth.

Like other Council documents, Nostra Aetate reflected developments in the study of Scripture and theology as well as many ecumenical and interfaith relationships, formal and informal, that had begun to develop in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, if many efforts prepared the way for this document, Nostra Aetate in fact represented a new point of departure for the Catholic Church. Indeed it has been called the “Magna Carta” of Jewish-Christian relations. Let me elaborate on this point.

First, in Chapter 4 of Nostra Aetate, the Church recovers, one might say, a strong conviction about the common spiritual patrimony of Jews and Christians. As part of its ongoing renewal, Christianity must claim & understand its Jewish roots. One cannot understand Jesus apart from Israel and the early Christian community took part in the Jewish liturgy in the temple. St. Paul visited the synagogue before proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles. Indeed, Catholic prayer forms to this day reflect Jewish prayer forms. As time went by, however, Christianity became disassociated from its Jewish roots and we lost the sense that in fact we belong to the same spiritual family. This degenerated into anti-Jewish attitudes and outbreaks of violence. Hostility toward Jews reached its utterly lowest point with the Holocaust in the primitive and pagan racism of the Nazi regime, an ideology condemned by successive popes, an ideology that sought also to destroy the tap-root of Christianity. That said, Christians should always lament and repent that their voices were at best muted as this horrific genocide unfolded.

One of the ways Nostra Aetate helps recover a common spiritual patrimony is by prompting us to reflect on the relationship of the Covenants. Nostra Aetate taught that the New Covenant does not annul or replace the First. As Cardinal Walter Kasper put it, “The New Covenant for Christians is not the replacement but the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Both stand with each other in a relationship of promise or anticipation & fulfillment.” God’s Covenant with Israel has never been revoked or repudiated and thus remains a part of the lasting heritage of the Christian church. In fact, Nostra Aetate refers to the 11th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he offers us the image of the Jewish people as the “good olive tree into which the wild branches of the Gentiles have been grafted” (Rom. 11:16-20). St. Paul gives us an image to describe how the Church is a new reality that is only able to live when it draws its nourishment from the root of Israel. This insight helps us along the path of recovering a sense of spiritual kinship and even interdependence that is the basis for praying together and working together for the common good.

Since Nostra Aetate was issued, Jewish-Christian dialogue and cooperation have flourished at the international, national, and local levels. I think of an aged Pope John Paul II standing at the Western wall or Pope Benedict at the Roman synagogue meditating on the Decalogue, or Pope Francis’ 2014 meeting with two Chief Rabbis, his prayer at the Western wall, and his meditation at Yad-Vashem, where he prayed for the grace “to be ashamed of what we as human beings are capable of…”

The Future
After 50 years, Nostra Aetate stands both as a guide and catalyst for studying the past in an openhearted manner, for the further exploration of theological questions, for deepening ties of friendship and cooperation, and for working together for the common good.

With us today are Mary Ellen Russell of the Maryland Catholic Conference and Bill McCarthy of Catholic Charities, two individuals who, along with me and Bishop Madden, deeply value our relationship with the Jewish community of greater Baltimore. May that relationship deepen and grow ever more beautiful in the years ahead. Thank you for listening!