Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, AJC, Israel
While the description of the last half century as having traversed a period from the Cold War to a globalized world, might be accurate; there is another way to describe this period of time that is religiously more pertinent, especially at an interreligious gathering convened by a Roman Catholic organization and especially in this year.
For it is almost exactly fifty years since the promulgation of the historic document Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the Relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, coming out of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, that revolutionized the approach of the Catholic Church towards other faiths and which facilitated the discovery; or if you prefer, the rediscovery, of the spirit of Francis of Assisi ; that the Divine Presence is to be found throughout our world in different religions and cultures; and that to truly be open to the Divine presence in our world requires us to be open to this diversity, especially in its spiritual expression.
However the promulgation of Nostra Aetate was by no means a foregone conclusion. In fact this document that concerns the religions of the world, was the result of the desire of Saint John XXIII to redress the Church’s predominantly contemptuous and hostile attitude towards its parent faith, Judaism.
John XXIII’s own personal history during the Second World War surely played a significant part in this regard. He was one of the first to learn about the implementation of the Nazi Final Solution to exterminate the Jews and heroically took courageous steps to save thousands of Jews from the Nazis’ clutches. Nevertheless, he was painfully aware of how the perversion of Christian teaching had led to sins of omission if not of commission during the Shoah, the Holocaust.
In the words of the 1998 Vatican document “We Remember”:- “The fact that the Shoah took place in countries of long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christians towards the Jews.” Were Nazi actions “made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts? Did anti-Jewish sentiment among Christians make them less sensitive, or even indifferent, to the persecutions launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power? Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews?”
”We Remember” declares :- “We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church” ; and the document added the words of Saint John Paul II “for Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence.”
Saint John XXIII ‘s historic meeting with the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac in June 1960, was a significant moment on this journey that led to Cardinal Bea being entrusted with the responsibility to prepare a text for the Council.
However, as is well known these efforts met with substantial opposition on both theological and political grounds.
In the end it was only possible to redress the Church’s relationship with Judaism and Jewry in the context of a document that dealt with the Church’s relationship with world religions more generally. There is surely a message in this itself. The relationship between the Jewish People and the Church not only has meaning for our relationships with other faiths and peoples, it has profound ramifications for our respective universal responsibilities.
At the same time, as Father Laurence Frizzell has pointed out, the very examination of the part of the Church of what “Nostra Aetate” declares to be her ‘bond with the Jewish People’, served as a major impetus for the consideration of the Church’s relationship with other Faiths, with the recognition “of the riches which the generous God has distributed among the nations” (Decree on Missionary Activity, #11) and an understanding that elements of truth and holiness are being reflected in the lives of many people, ( thus putting to rest) the ‘religious imperialism’ of (previous) centuries” (Laurence E. Frizzell, Jewish-Christian Relations and the Dialogue with World Religions, SIDIC, Vol. 28 No. 2, 1995).
Accordingly while Nostra Aetate emphasizes the Christian rootedness in Judaism, it affirms not only the Divine presence outside the Church, but also served as the inspiration for a theology of partnership to a greater of lesser degree among the religions of the world.
Indeed if we affirm a faith in an Omnipresent Omniscient Deity who has created all people ”in His Image” and who thus relates to them in all their cultural and ideological diversity; then there must be different cultural and ideological ways of relating to Him. The engagement with these other realities does not at all need to be a compromise with one’s own truth claims and experiences, but rather an enrichment from the Divine diversity that is part and parcel of Creation itself and a development thereof.
However, Nostra Aetate not only served as a foundation for interreligious meeting and dialogue but also for joint action. If values that religions affirm and share are born out a sense of the Transcendent in the world, then we who affirm that Transcendent presence have a special obligation to work together for the promotion of those values - in particular the sanctity of life and the family; to be greater than the sum of our different parts. Indeed not to do so is in effect to betray those values that we claim to espouse.
Thus Saint John Paul II’s initiative at Assisi in 1986 was the consequential destination of the path that Nostra Aetate forged, making interreligious dialogue and cooperation more mainstream to traditional religions than ever before.
This was reinforced by the subsequent Assisi multi-faith meetings convened in 1993 in prayer for the Balkans; and the anniversary meetings by John Paul II and in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. However the spirit of Assisi has been embraced by many significant segments of the Church - most notably here, the community of Sant Egidio.
I join with all who express our admiration and appreciation for the way this spiritual Olympic torch has been held aloft and passed on throughout our world by the Sant Egidio community. This serves as inspiration for us all in difficult times. It serves to testify not only to the fact that peace is always possible, but also as a call to do all we can to work together to make this vision of a redeemed world into a reality, each of us according to his or her abilities.
Thus beyond revolutionizing the Church’s relationship with the Jewish People, Nostra Aetate’s positive approach towards other world religions in effect prepared the path to Assisi, to enable the world’s religions to become what they aspire to be – a source of blessing and peace for all humanity.