October 27, 2005

The great encyclical that united Jewish and Catholic people


It is the 40th anniversary of a valuable text inspired by John XXIII which is the milestone of the interreligious dialogue later developed by John Paul II.

Under the sign of interreligious dialogue, a new era was inaugurated by John Paul II according to the principles of the Second Vatican Council, an extraordinary landmark born from the inspiration of Pope John XXIII, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.

The theological expression of the Council related to the non-Christian religions was the declaration ”Nostra Aetate” (Our Era), proclaimed on October 28th, 1965, in coincidence with the anniversary of John XXIII’s election as Pope in 1958.

The revolutionary document inaugurated a new era in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people after centuries of prejudices and persecutions. The origins, however, come from the humanitarian actions of Monsignor Roncalli during the Holocaust.

Bishop Radini Tedeschi, member of the Italian nobility and one of the most progressive Prelates of Italy at that time, passed away in 1914. His secretary, Angelo Roncalli, decided to write the biography of his mentor and sent it to Pope Benedictus XV, personal friend of Bishop Tedeschi. Once the WWI ended, the chief of the church called Roncalli and designed him Director of the Office for Attention to the Foreign missions. Later, Pope Pio XI named him Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria in March 1925. After 10 years in Sofia, Roncalli was named Apostolic Delegate in Turkey. It was precisely in Istanbul, during WWII, where Roncalli lead one of the most memorable rescue missions remembered by history.

Ira Hirschman, delegate of the United States War Refugee Board, writes in his memoirs a conversation he had with Roncalli: ”He listened to me with attention while I described the desperate fight of the Jewish people of Hungary, the last Hebrew community of Europe threatened by the Final Solution. He pulled his chair up closer and quietly asked: ‘Do you think that the Jewish people would voluntarily undergo a baptism ceremony?’ I answered that, according to my impression, they would if that was enough to save them from the extermination camps. ‘I know what I am going to do’, he sentenced. He said he had reasons to believe that some of the certificates of baptism were already given by nuns to Hungarian Jews. The Nazis had recognized them as credentials and allowed the owners to flee the country”

This is how, from Istanbul, Roncalli coordinated with the apostolic nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, the massive distribution of baptismal certificates, with the understanding that, once the war ended, each person will be able to decide which religious condition he/she will maintain.

The Baptist Operation started with the blessing of the future ”Good Pope.”

According to the testimonies given in the Nüremberg trials, the initiative helped save 24,000 Jewish lives. However, Catholic sources confirm that 80,000 certificates were given.

Baruch Tenembaum
Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
Angelo Roncalli International Committee