March 3, 2004

Catholics and Jews could overcome prejudices and distrust


The relationship between Catholicism and Judaism has been marked for centuries by prejudices and distrust. On the Catholics’ side the prejudices were based on a misinterpretation of the Gospels about the role played by the Jews. On the Jews’ side the distrust was a consequence of centuries of persecutions which reached their peak in the XX century with the Holocaust. Prejudices and distrust in spite of invoking the same God, of sharing the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, of professing the faith of Abraham and Moses, and of the teachings of the Ten Commandments.

But in the last decades strong approaching signals were shown by the Catholicism, which not without clearing their own obstacles, enlightened a phase of increasing fraternity and intensive dialogue. Everyone agrees that the most important arquitech of this turning point was John XXIII, who in 1959 – a year after having taken on his papacy- did away with the controversial reference of ”the treacherous and unfaithful Jews”, in the traditional prayer of the Good Friday liturgy. Today we know that John XXIII – while being Papal Nuncio in Turkey – saved thousands of Jews from the Concentration Camps by handing them Baptism Certificates.

The following step taken by the Good Pope was to summon for the Second Vatican Council, which updated the Church and opened the doors of the dialogue with the other Christian and non Christian religions wide and especially with the Judaism. Nostra Aetate was the Council Document which put an end to the ignonimious interpretation which lays the responsibility on the Jews for Jesus Christ’s death: ” Whatever has been done in His Passion, can neither be indiscriminately imputed to all the Jews that lived in those days nor to those who live nowadays (.) . Jews cannot be pointed out as if they were either condemned or cursed by God according to the Holy Scriptures.”

Paul VI made progress in this process when, in his trip to the Holy Land in 1964, he said that the patriarchs were “our Fathers in the Faith”. But it was John Paul II who sealed the reconciliation with a succession of historical signals: he was the first Pope who visited a synagogue ( the one in Rome, in 1986), on this occasion he spoke of the Jews as “our elder brothers in the Faith”. And he was also the first Pope who visited a concentration camp ( Auschwitz, in 1979). During his papacy , the Vatican published the text ” A Reflection on the Shoa” (1998), where he pondered whether ” some Christians prejudices against the Jews did not encourage the Nazi persecution”.

It was also during his papacy that the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Israel (1993). On the occasion of the Jubilee of 2000, John Paul II requested the Jews to forgive the ” hostility and bad faith of many Christians against the Hebrews which lasted for centuries, something which represents a painful action”, He also asked about the relationship between the prejudices against the Jews and the Nazi persecution. Shortly afterwards, on his trip to Holy Land, he requested the Jews for their forgiveness while standing in front of the Wailing Wall, where he invoked the victims of the Holocaust and he said that the Church ” is deeply sorry ” for some Christians’ anti- Semitism.

In Argentina

Argentina – home of one of the largest Jewish communities in the world – joined in in this process. Just like it happened all over the world, the first steps were not easy. To the prejudices against the Jews in certain sectors, a vernacular nationalism was added . But the process could not be stopped. In the fifties and in the sixties personalities such as Monsignor Gustavo Francheschi, Jorge Mejía, who is Cardinal nowadays, Guillermo
Schlesinger, who was the Great Rabbi of the Israelite Congregation in the Argentine Republic in those days, and Father Carlos Cucchetti largely contributed to this process. But there were personal rather than institutional contacts.

In the mid sixties there appeared Baruj Tenembaum, a young lay Jew, expert on Bible studies, who – being only 33 years old – launched the Argentine House in Israel Holy Land, which fostered the inter- religious fraternity. The incipient institution would play an important role in the approach. Monsignor Ernesto Segura – Assistant Bishop of Buenos Aires and General Secretary of the Episcopate – became to be its first president, encouraging the dialogue with the Jews. Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, who was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in those days , was the first Primacy who visited a synagogue and the first member of this institution.

As time went by, the Argentine House financed the trip of dozens of priests to Holy Land and organized innumerable events to encourage the Jewish – Catholic fraternity. Much closer to our times, in 1993, it encouraged and succeded in making Cardinal Antonio Quarrachino to become the first Primacy who visited the old headquarters of the AMIA. It happened as a consequence of the visit to the country of Faruk Zoabi, the Kadi of Jerusalem – the most important Islamic authority in Israel – who had been invited by the Argentine House. The photograph of both , Schlomó Ben Hamú, the Great Rabbi of Buenos Aires, holding hands, which stands there, is another strong signal of the process.

But the most important milestone achieved by the Argentine House was the installation of a mural in the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1993 which reminds us of the victims of the Holocaust, a decision taken by Monsignor Quarrachino (see ” A unique mural..”).The agreement of Monsignor Quarrachino -who had asked to be burried by the mural – contributed to strengthen this dialogue.

The list of important personalities and entities contributing to this aproach is longer. For example, the Congregation of the Sisters of Sión, with Nun Alda; the Rabbi León Klenicki; the Latin-American Rabbinical Seminar and Rabbi Marshal Mayer, its founder, Monsignor Justo Laguna and the members of the Religious Freedom Council, presided by Ángel Centeno y Norberto Padilla.

All of them made this country an example of cohabitation

*Translation: Nora Bellettieri.