A Dream Becomes Reality
Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan
The Cardinal-Archbishop of New York held a conference dedicated to 50 years of Nostra Aetate, the Conciliar decree on dialogue with non-Christians. The meeting, which took place at the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue in the Jewish Theological Seminary was realized in collaboration with the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue of the University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and with the Russell Berrie Foundation. Published here are excerpts.
Our gathering is particularly providential as we celebrate the golden jubilee of the inspired document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, a teaching that dramatically transformed Jewish-Catholic relations. We Catholics sometimes quip that our Jewish neighbors pay more attention to Vatican statements than we do! Both of us have paid attention to Nostra Aetate, thank God, and friendship between us has never been stronger. The Pontiff for over 50% of the half-century since that inspired document was Pope — now Saint — John Paul II, for whom the worldwide Jewish community has a deep reverence. Four months after his death in 2005, I travelled with four other bishops and about a half-dozen rabbis on a very moving trip to Poland and Rome. In the Eternal City, we were running late, and our guide announced that, because we were going to be tardy for our appointment at the Synagogue in Rome, we would have to skip our prayer at the tomb of John Paul II. “The hell we are” — and I quote — protested the six rabbis. To stand before his tomb in St Peter’s Basilica, bishops and rabbis hands joined, was a pinnacle of our journey.
Now, I admit that what immediately comes to mind would be two things: one, the theological advances in Jewish-Catholic understanding under John Paul II, and, two, the candid dialogue over the neuralgic issues that arose during his 26-year pontificate. This prestigious center of Jewish theology would be well aware of John Paul’s proposition that we Jews and Christians now return to the conversation rudely interrupted in 70 A.D., when Roman soldiers leveled Jerusalem, scattering both Jews and Christians in a diaspora still with us, and take up again such profound questions as covenant, election, Israel’s special and unique place in God’s revelation, the Law, and how the two of us are to relate as children of Abraham and people of the Book. The acceptance of that invitation from John Paul has resulted in a promising flourishing of Jewish-Catholic scholarship.
Likewise are we all cognizant of the radioactive issues the Polish Pope never dodged, tender topics such as the Good Friday Prayers, the somber and tragic legacy of Christian anti-semitism, the role of the Holy See during the Shoah, Vatican diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel, or even flashy episodes like the proposed cross and convent at Auschwitz, the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” and the visit of Kurt Waldheim to Rome.
Instead of elaborating on those two admittedly worthwhile areas, I would dare suggest that Pope John Paul II realized the dream of Nostra Aetate in a much more substantive and innovative way: by trusting the Jewish community enough to invite them into what was indeed the number one priority of his pontificate: to recover the primacy of the spiritual. Simply put, John Paul II believed that the most mortal toxin infecting the human project was the denial of God’s sovereignty, even existence, and that the Church’s most natural allies in facing this challenge were the Jews. Humanity’s preference of late, to “get along just fine without God”, — to use Rabbi Jonathan Sax’s definition of secularism — was deadly, and must be reversed. The Pope believed that the Jewish community would share his sense of urgency.
Let me try to explain... John Paul II took literally the dictum of the psalmist that “only in God is my soul at rest,” and that, as our scriptures reveal unremittingly, any attempt to seek absolute peace, meaning, and purpose in anyone or anything else besides God was a recipe for chaos and frustration.
It was Billy Graham who would observe that the revival of humanity’s empty and exhausted soul became John Paul’s mission, and this Pontiff was convinced our “elder brothers and sisters,” as he called you, were our most valued partners in this endeavor. He came upon this drive to recover the primacy of the spiritual in the human enterprise very naturally. The high-octane Catholicism of his beloved Poland saw God’s design and presence everywhere. Poland’s own tragic history taught Karol Wojtyla that faith alone would never fail. His Poland had literally been erased from maps in the late 19th century, and, while its status may have been restored after World War I, it was left in the dirt. So young Karol Wojtyla turned to your psalms: “Whoever trusts in God is like Mt Zion, unshakeable, it stands forever.” He himself lost everything — his mother, his sister, his brother — a physician who succumbed to an epidemic while treating others — and his father, by the time he was in his early twenties. With the rest of Poland he cried as he watched the Luftwaffe swarm over his country on September 1, 1939, and lived in daily danger for six bleak years, watching Jewish friends and his own classmates in the secret seminary in Krakow disappear nightly. Early one morning, coming home from work in the chemical factory, he was hit by a truckload of Nazi soldiers and left for dead on the side of the road.
Things did not get better, as Poland lost the war twice, when the jackboots of Hitler’s thugs were replaced by those of Stalin’s, as the climate of enforced, oppressive “living without God” continued to smother Poland.
Is it any wonder that his first words on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica were those repeated so often by the God of Israel, and by His Son, Jesus, “Be not afraid!”
John Paul Il’s cause, then, was to rally Catholics, Christians, and Jews to shout “We want God!” For what had been squandered was a sense of awe at the very mystery of God, a mystery at the soul of Judaism and Christianity. Our visions have been blotted; skepticism and cynicism dominate our discourse; all is at the mercy of manipulation by our self willfulness; and the pleasure principle has ended up robbing us of joy. Man had become a puzzle for technicians to solve, not a mystery for poets to love and embrace.
Nostra Aetate tells us that all peoples comprise a single community, and have a single origin ... one also is their final goal: God. His Providence, His goodness, His saving designs extend to all. For Jews and Christians, our belief in God has certain implications, which John Paul believed impel Jews and Christians to work together.
One would be our insistence on the dignity of the human person, created, according to Genesis, in God’s own image and likeness, made, so says the psalmist, “little less than a god.” Two would be the sanctity of every human life, never a means to an end but an end in itself. Three would be an allegiance to God’s Law, truths, as John Paul commented at Sinai, “written on the human heart before engraved in stone,” not to be contradicted by self-will or popular demand.
Four would be solidarity, a sense that we’re all in this together, and that we’re much better off sticking together and looking out for each other than we are locked-up in our own comfort. Fifth would be a mutual world view. Jews and Catholics share the same glasses. Simply put, history is His-story! The histoiy of salvation, in which Jews and Christians believe, is, in fact the history of the world. Both John Paul and Rabbi Joshua Heschel would remind us that “‘coincidence’ is the term that non-believers use instead of ‘providence’!” And, like Heschel, evident in the title of his great book John Paul II was convinced that the human story is not so much the recounting of our search for God, but of God’s search for us.
So, Pope John Paul II could become a pilgrim, like Abraham, reminding the world of its real story, its genuine identity, as God’s creation, unfolding according to His plan.
This optic common to Jews and Christians makes us, as John Paul often commented, “a blessing to one another.” Together, we share our eye glasses with others, so all can see history to be “His”-story, that human dignity and life are enhanced, not shackled, when we proclaim, “We want God,” that each of us is called to renew the Exodus, allowing the Lord to free us from slavery and death to freedom and life, as we celebrate each spring at Passover and Easter.
It was Theodor Herzl a century ago who understood that anti-semitism is proof that something is seriously flawed in the culture of the West. George Weigel again: “When the fever chant of anti-semitism spikes upward, it is always the sign that the patient ... is in mortal danger ... in no small part because it has forgotten the biblical roots of the Western civilizational enterprise”.
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22 May 2015, page 4
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