‘Nostra Aetate’ Commemoration Recalls Pope John XXIII’s Legacy

With the prominence of religious tension and divisiveness in today’s global affairs, this Oct. 28 marks a significant anniversary for all people coming to terms with diversity of beliefs and practices. Forty-one years ago, the Second Vatican Council issued ”Nostra Aetate,” a declaration on the Catholic Church’s position toward non-Christian religions. Commissioned by Pope John XXIII, the initiative condemned anti-semitism and sought to facilitate a new era of peaceful interfaith relations. From America to Israel and from Northern Ireland to Sudan, the Nostra Aetate precedent is a vital memory if the worthwhile vision of religious equality and respect is to be realized.

”This point of change in the history of Judeo-Catholic relations was not a chance result or political opportunism,” said Baruch Tenembaum, a Jewish leader and founder of the Angelo Roncalli Committee, which promotes the humanitarian legacy of the man who would become Pope John XXIII. ”[Nostra Aetate] was the testimony that confirmed a new attitude toward the Jewish people, a real transformation originating in the sentiments and profound sense of reconciliation of John XXIII.”

Angelo Roncalli’s service in the Church is marked by respect toward and dialogue with non-Catholic religions. As Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and Greece after 1935, he engaged peaceably with the worlds of Orthodoxy and Islam. When World War II erupted, he risked his position and security to provide thousands of Turkish transit visas, ”temporary” baptismal certificates, and immigration certificates, authorizing Hungarian Jews persecuted by the Nazis to escape to Palestine. He also aided Jews of France, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy. Catholic sources note that he issued 80,000 protective certificates. Testimonies at the Nuremberg trials credit him with helping to save tens of thousands of lives.

Roncalli not only took direct action to rescue so many people. He also denounced before the Vatican and the Allied nations the genocide carried out by the Nazis. This spirit of inclusiveness and commitment to relieve suffering, regardless of religion, are the backdrop to his convocation of the committee that issued the Nostra Aetate on Oct. 28, 1965. Said Tenembaum, four decades later, ”Humanity still has much to learn from his wonderful apostolate.”

The Angelo Roncalli International Committee is composed of people of different religions and ideologies. All are united by the will to publicize the brave rescue of persecuted peoples during the Holocaust, by someone who later became Pope John XXIII. The Angelo Roncalli Committee is part of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to develop educational programs and public awareness campaigns that promote the moral legacy of Holocaust saviors.

Melanie Capiccioni is a IRWF volunteer.