The Wellington Council of Christians and Jews last month celebrated 40 years since the Second Vatican Council overturned the history of enmity between two of the world’s major religions.
A large, enthusiastic audience at Connolly Hall on 9 November heard of the history, from both sides, of Nostra Aetate, the reconciliation document between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
Church historian, Monsignor John Broadbent told of the history of dispute, mistrust and persecution on behalf of the church towards the Jewish people from its earliest days, including in the St Paul’s New Testament letters. He said that Nostra Aetate, entirely changed this by having been issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
Present at the meeting were the Catholic Archbishop of Wellington, John Dew, the Papal Nuncio Charles Balvo and Rabbi Antony Lipman, other officers of various churches, and many members of the Jewish and Christian communities.
Dr Broadbent referred to the impact on millions of Christians over the centuries, including a young Adolf Hitler, of New Testament readings in the churches, especially at Easter time, which characterised the Jews as perfidious and referred to Muslims as infidels.
He told of the number of popes who enforced persecution against Jews and Muslims, although, he said, some had condemned this.
Pope Pius XII stood before the bar of history, Dr Broadbent said, for not publicly condemning the Nazi Holocaust. He also said that the same pope hid many Jews in Rome from the Nazis and ordered monasteries to act as safe houses and set up escape routes (which would have been at risk to their lives).
He highlighted the contrast with Muslim Turkey, which was very active in saving Jewish lives, risking ‘the wrath of Hitler’.
Dr Broadbent said Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) had rescued many Jews during the Nazi persecution. He removed the offensive lines from Easter prayers. It was he who called the Second Vatican Council that condemned all church teachings that were opposed to Judaism, Islam and other non-Christian religions that subsequently issued Nostra Aetate meaning ‘in our time’ (the opening words). This pope pointed out that the beginning of the Christian faith is in the Hebrew bible and that divine favour had not been withdrawn from the Jewish people. He was seeking a brotherly dialogue.
Dr Broadbent spoke of John Paul II and his friendship with Jews in his earlier years in Poland and that he had acted in every way he could to save Jews during the Holocaust. He visited Auschwitz and prayed there, and, in 1993, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel.
In 1997 the pope issued a statement specifically condemning anti-Semitism and acknowledged the role that years of church anti-Jewish teaching had played in the Holocaust.
He visited Yad Vashen (the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust) and the Western Wall in Jerusalem and was seen as a sincere friend of the Jewish people. He extended the dialogue with Jewish rabbis, incorporating the orthodox as well as the progressive communities.
This pope ruled that Jews are partners in the same covenant and the ‘older brothers’ of Christians, refuting the old theology that God’s promises to the Jews have been replaced by a new covenant with the Christians. He returned Jesus to his Jewish roots.
Dr Broadbent said Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was at least implicitly anti-Semitic.
Paul Morris of the Jewish faith, Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, told the gathering that it would be helpful if the Roman Catholic Church specifically condemned Mel Gibson’s film and prevented its use as a teaching tool.
He reviewed the unhappy history of Catholic-Jewish relations, and referred to the current Pope Benedict XVI as supporting the spirit of Nostra Aetate.
He pointed out that this document acknowledges the common ancestry in Abraham between Christians, Muslims and Jews.
He then turned to the Jewish response to Nostra Aetate, which rabbis greeted with suspicion at first. But, he said, subsequent dialogue documents had brought about the reconciliation that is now in progress.
He explained that Nostra Aetate was primarily a document directed towards Catholics and dealt with Christian perspectives on Jews, was in Catholic language and that what was needed was for the teachings of the Second Vatican Council to reach grassroots Christians, many of whom still considered that Jews were guilty of the death of Jesus and therefore had a poor opinion of Jews living now. This extended to the younger generation.
He hoped that now that the theology had been corrected, there was a real chance of a normalisation of relationships through dialogue.
An extremely lively question time was wound up by the Papal Nuncio pointing out that the current Pope Benedict XVI had a reputation for reaching out to the Jewish people and that he has published a small book which includes the idea that it is not possible to understand Christianity without first understanding Judaism.