Two Old Friends: Benedict XVI and Jacob Neusner
Rabbi and Pope finally meet in Washington
Jacob Neusner is pleased with the enthusiasm with which his friend Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed in his Country. "The Holy Father was received with great enthusiasm, not only by Catholics but by Protestants and Jews and Hindus and Muslims and by the diverse communities of religious people. On his American Visit he was everybody's Pope''.
If on the one hand the Rabbi, Professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College, had a good impression of the welcome offered by his fellow countrymen, on the other he was not surprised by the standard of the German Pope's Discourses: "I anticipated that that the Pope would raise for serious discussion critical questions of the social order and I was not disappointed. His messages were solid and challenging and he left a weighty message of religion and truth. He exercises moral authority for all reasonable people".
The emotion with which Mr. Neusner speaks of this Visit reflects the Rabbi's feeling of being perfectly in tune with the Pope and his Magisterium.
'I was very impressed that during the Wednesday Audience at which Benedict XVI announced his Visit to the United States, he spoke of the Golden Rule — do to others what you would have them do to you —, saying that although it is given in the Bible, it is valid for all people including non-believers. It is the law written on the human heart.
"A few days ago, I left a conference on the Golden Rule in the religions of the world at Bard College to attend the meeting with the Holy Father, so this question is pleasantly urgent and I would say even more urgent to me right now. At that conference I stressed that the Golden Rule, the rule of reciprocity, is contained in all world religions. It is part of the natural order of morality. The Holy Father draws upon his scholarship to offer moral leadership and what he said is right and just".
However, the greatest pleasure Rabbi Neusner had was on Thursday. 17 April, in Washington at the meeting with the Jewish Community, when the Pope made room especially for him and his family. In fact, it was a special meeting between two friends who had never met.
"It was a moving moment. The Holy Father greeted me, saying, 'After 15 years of letters at last we meet'. He spoke excellent English, but it was an effort and I told him I could follow Italian and he gave me a big smile. We proceeded in Italian, which my wife also has studied. I proposed that we write a book together on the points of convergence between Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries".
Unusual but beautiful is the only way to describe this story of a friendship between two people divided by an ocean and two different faiths but united in their longing for dialogue and communion and in their respect for differences and the truth.
An intellectual and spiritual friendship which dates back 15 years was born from this bond when Rabbi Neusner published a short essay entitled: A Rabbi talks with Jesus, which deeply impressed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who after so many years (in the meantime a correspondence between the two had begun) dedicated several pages and great praise to the Rabbi in his book Jesus of Nazareth, published last year.
The ocean has now been crossed, the two friends have been able to embrace in person, and the warmth of the meeting spread to the entire event in Washington.
"A large Jewish delegation came to welcome the Pope in Washington'', the Rabbi noted. ''He also visited a synagogue in New York City. Only good can come of this Visit. The relationships between the Catholic and the Jewish communities are constructive and warm".
There is no trace in the Rabbi's reasoning of the controversial episode concerning the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews which has fuelled so much discussion in Italy. "The subject did not come up in the meeting I attended in Washington", said Rabbi Neusner, who among other things has recently published in various European dailies a reflection on the "reciprocity of prayer", smoothing over any possible pretext for dispute. "I did not hear it discussed with the Jewish delegation in Washington. I am confident that the Vatican Commission on Jewish-Christian relations will resolve the matter in a way satisfactory for all concerned. What is needed now is mutual trust and forbearance. His Eminence Cardinal Kasper has led the way. This is not an issue that should disrupt long-term progress. The communities of Judaism and the Catholic Church have worked together for several generations now to discover common causes and have achieved much. The present controversy will pass".
Neusner believes that controversies on small things will pass and must pass because what is at stake is important.
"People must make peace because the alternative is to perish. People of different faiths can live in peace and harmony, and that is the aspiration of Jews and Christians alike. From Pope John XXIII onward, the Catholic Church has made itself a force for peace among nations. The reports of the Pope's Meeting with President Bush and at the U.N. show how much his counsel is respected in the councils of nations".
Hence, with regard to the Pope there is no closure or prejudice on the part of American Jews; if anything, a little ill feeling still exists among Christians.
"There is prejudice against the Catholic Church", the Rabbi theologian affirmed, "on the part of the Evangelical Churches which use scurrilous language that goes back to the Protestant Reformation to attack Catholic Christianity. There is also prejudice expressed by some Catholics against the Catholic Church and the Holy Father for not allowing those Catholics to dictate the shape of the faith.
"The firm and constructive message of the Pope on his American Visit does much to overcome that prejudice. For example, his words on sexual-abuse scandals and his faithful meeting with the victims of abuse healed deep wounds. That is why I say he was this week everybody's Pope in America. He showed himself a true Pope in his ministry to the American Church".
Weekly Edition in English
30 April 2008, page 10
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