Interview with Cardinal Jorge Mara Meja
L'Osservatore Romano

Cardinal Morge Mara Meja looks back on a life full of memories

A Papal Visit to the Synagogue makes history and forges friendships

A pioneer of dialogue with the Jews, a great expert in the Jewish culture and language, a witness of the Second Vatican Council and a protagonist of the post-conciliar period with long years of service at the Holy See behind him the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mara Meja, 86, Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church emeritus, spoke with Nicola Cori of the Italian daily edition of L'Osservatore Romano. The following is a translation of the interview, which was given in Italian.

You took part as an expert in the Second Vatican Council, contributing your Latin-American pastoral experience. Could you tell us something about those years?

We were at the end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council when, to my surprise, Mons. Carmelo Juan Giaquinta, an Argentine colleague, came to my house. He brought me an envelope from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. The letter told me that the Secretary of State had appointed me as peritus at the Council. Indeed, I was rather surprised because until then I had been concerned with other things, for example, with Criterio, the important Argentine Catholic journal. I must say that I put a lot of energy into my work at the Council. From my seat at the tribunal of experts, I met some very important figures. Among them were Henri de Lubac, whom I had contacted for my thesis in theology at the Angelicum, Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, who was later a Cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and Egidio Vigan who was to become Rector Major of the Salesians. And of course, I also met a theologian called Joseph Ratzinger.

What were your tasks?

I was made responsible for meeting the Argentine and Uruguayan Bishops, with whom I had already been in touch prior to the Second Vatican Council. We would meet once a month and from these meetings came suggestions and requests that were later presented to the Council. I must say that I was not a member of any of the conciliar commissions. I remember that during the drafting of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, several Bishops and I were concerned by the fact that not much attention was being given to the evil and sin in the world and to the presence of the devil. Some of our remarks were accepted and inserted in the document. This was what happened in the Council Hall. Outside, instead, a high level group was meeting, in which, among others, were Yves Congar and Ratzinger himself. I was invited to these meetings, at which the theologian Hans Kng was one of the most active in proposing topics for discussion. It was my task to record the questions and answers formulated at these meetings. I still have it all in my archives.

Did your interest in Judaism develop during the Second Vatican Council?

It began earlier. Numerous Jews live in Buenos Aires and in certain provinces such as Entre Rios and Santa Fe, as a result of the emigration encouraged by Baron Hirsch, a Frenchman. I became interested in Judaism essentially for two reasons. The first was because, as a teacher of Sacred Scripture, I realized that to have greater familiarity with Biblical Hebrew it was important to know modern Hebrew. I therefore decided to enroll at an institute in Buenos Aires where modern Hebrew was taught. When I came to enroll they were very surprised to see a priest but accepted me without any difficulty. The students were all young Jews; I was the only non-Jew. This facilitated openness to dialogue. The second reason was linked to my meeting Rabbi Leon Klenicki. Knowing that I was a Scripture teacher, he asked me to come and talk to him. He was connected with the rabbinic seminary founded in Buenos Aires by an American rabbi and he suggested that we arrange meetings for Catholic and Jewish students and professors. I agreed and requested permission from the superiors of the theology faculty where I taught. Rabbi Klenicki and I were friends until he died.

How have you used the experience you acquired in those years?

At the wishes of Paul VI from 1974, the Secretariat for Christian Unity began to have relations with Judaism at an institutional level. I had collaborated with the Secretariat during and after the Council. This was also one of the reasons why they turned to me when, barely a year after the creation of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the first Secretary, Pierre-Marie-Stanislas de Contenson died. He was a famous Dominican. I was told that the Superiors, namely Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and the Spanish Bishop Ramon Torrella, after hearing the opinion of Cardinal Jean Villot, Secretary of State, had decided to appoint me to replace him. I already had useful experience in this field and when Bishop Eduardo Francisco Pironio, then Bishop of Mar del Plata, was appointed Secretary of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), I was named Secretary of the Department for Ecumenism and for Interreligious Relations. It was my
task to keep in touch with the Jews. Moreover I had my friend Klenicki, who was in charge of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations in the Anti-Defamation League, the international Jewish association based in the United States. In agreement with him, we had already had a first meeting of Rabbis and Catholic experts in Bogot in 1968, in the context of the International Eucharistic Congress in which Paul VI also took part. From 2001, I was asked to look after a small group for dialogue with representatives of the Grand Rabbinate of Israel. This was a working group with a fixed number of members, with eight spokesmen on each side. We had seven meetings, each one followed by communiqus published in Italian and English in L'Osservatore Romano.

Do you have any special memories linked to the historic visit of John Paul II to the Synogogue of Rome on 13 April 1986?

This is how it happened: John Paul II was in the habit of organizing work lunches. One day a Papal Journey to the United States was being organized to my great surprise the then Substitute Eduardo Martinez Somalo invited me to one of those meetings. I did not really understand the reason for my presence until the Pope began to speak: among other things he said that the Archbishop of Los Angeles had suggested that he visit a Synagogue in the city. The Pontiff addressed the question to me as Secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He said that if he was to go to a Synagogue, he should start with the one in the Pope's Diocese, Rome. John Paul II asked, me if, in my opinion, this would be possible. I answered that we could try and he encouraged me to do so. I then called Rabbi Elio Toaff, Chief Rabbi of Rome, whom I knew well. He had already met the Pope once in the sacristy of San Carlo dei Catinari: it was the day when Italy had voted on the law introducing abortion and Toaff wanted to express his solidarity with the Pope. I explained to the Rabbi, choosing my words carefully, that the Pontiff would be willing to visit the Synagogue of Rome as a gesture of friendship and closeness. The Rabbi answered me with a citation in Hebrew from Psalm 118 [117]:26, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord". He told me he would discuss it with the Council and let me know. He did so the following day: and the answer was "yes". Sunday, 13 April, was chosen as the date by common accord, even though John Paul II had a canonization that same morning.

Together with Cardinal Etchegaray you promoted the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 27 October 1986. What were its results?

I was appointed Vice-President of the Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax on 8 March 1986. Shortly afterwards Cardinal Etchegaray who was President told me that the Pope had summoned him, together with the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for a consultation. John Paul II wanted to promote a prayer meeting with Christians and non-Christians who were willing to accept his invitation in a symbolic city. The theme was peace. The Pope asked Cardinal Etchegaray to propose some cities, but not Rome, in order not to give the impression that the others had to come to the Pope's home. Among the possible cities were Jerusalem and Assisi. We met with the Secretaries of the various Dicasteries to examine how to organize the day of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. In particular it was decided that it would not be one prayer in common but that in accordance with the Pontiff's wishes everyone would pray beside one another in the same place. I remember that the Pope observed the fast until the following day. In spite of it all there was some criticism. In his Discourse to the Curia on 22 December that year, John Paul II returned to the subject and reaffirmed that in fact it had not been one prayer in common but prayers in one common place.

In 1994 you were appointed Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. What memories do you have of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who was Prefect at that time?

I was called by the then Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who asked me if I were willing to accept the appointment as Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. I must say that this appointment was completely different from my previous offices but I accepted. The Pope invited me to lunch the day after my appointment, on 6 March 1994. On that occasion I plucked up courage and asked him why I had been appointed to that office, given that I had a very different background. The Pope looked at me and said that there was a very important reason: to invite the Bishops to be concerned with the topics of justice and peace.

Four years later you were to be named Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church.

It was 28 February 1998. John Paul II informed Cardinal Gantin that he had appointed me Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church. I remember that the Cardinal telephoned me at 8 p.m., telling me that he had to see me immediately. To my surprise he came to my home to tell me of my promotion. He also said that he was sorry to lose me, because we had developed a relationship of complete harmony. He therefore asked me to stay on at the Dicastery until 25 March. Gantin was a man of great simplicity, he had no formal attitude that made people feel ill at ease. Everyone knows of his commitment to Bishops. Despite the difficulties, I never saw Cardinal Gantin lose his calm or be overwhelmed by worries. He always asked my opinion in order to find the best solutions to problems. He had a strong sense of Church. I confirm that no problem was ever solved without applying the evangelical principles. He said that the Gospel teaches us and that no day passes without its problem. He then added smiling that this was not true in the Congregation of Bishops, because every day there are at least two or three!

What is your personal memory of John Paul II?

I was his classmate at the Angelicum. When he was elected Pope on 16 October 1978, I was astonished that it was precisely the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow who had been elected. At a
Plenary Meeting of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands told us that the Pope wanted to greet us one by one. Until that moment I had not told anyone that I was a fellow student of John Paul II. When I stood in the queue and my turn came, Cardinal Willebrands introduced me. But, looking at him, the Pope said there was no need to introduce me because we had known each other for 40 years. Everyone wondered what he meant. The Pope then explained that we had studied together at the Angelicum and added that I knew Thomist theology better than he did. I blushed with embarassment and wanted to leave, but the Pope said that we should greet each other as we used to, that is, with a big hug. John Paul II sometimes called me by my name, Jorge, and this caused a bit of a stir. I remember that on the last day of his earthly life, on the morning of 2 April, I went to the Pope's apartment and knelt beside him, taking his hand. I saw his face, suffering but conscious. He turned his face to me and I said to him: "Holy Father, I am Jorge". His eyes registered recognition and so I whispered to him in Spanish: "La vida por usted" [My life for you].


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 July 2009, page 8

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