Jewish Journal

The Conversion of the Jews, Part II

A landmark Catholic-Jewish dialogue aims to increase the peace

by Rob Eshman

Posted on Oct. 7, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Could there be a more fitting way to open an evening of Catholic-Jewish dialogue than by singing a gospel rendition of "The Storm Is Passing Over"? For the better part of two millennia, the Catholic Church and its Protestant offshoots have hammered away at Jews and their religion like an El Niño from hell. Now, as 2000 approaches, it seems the worst is over. Now it's time for us to raise up the storm windows and hear them say, "Oops. Sorry."

Would that it were so simple.

The agony of Catholic-Jewish relations was very much on the top of everyone's minds at "Understanding and Hope," a special program held Oct. 6 at Valley Beth Shalom. Sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the American Jewish Committee, the evening brought together Catholic and Jewish clergy and scholars for a multipart examination of the Catholic-Jewish past (terrible), present (better) and future (cross your fingers).

Most striking was the crowd. Sixteen hundred souls jammed into the Encino synagogue, filling the main sanctuary and spilling over into an adjacent, video-feed-only room. It was a half-and-half audience, skewed older, with a telling representation of Holocaust survivors.

"People want reconciliation, dialogue, understanding," said VBS Rabbi Harold Schulweis, explaining the turnout. "There was none of the accusatory stuff and none of the divisiveness."

Indeed. The program itself was largely about progress. The Catholic children's choir also sang "Hiney Ma Tov," the VBS Choir sang a Gregorian chant. Daniel Smith-Christopher, professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Loyola Marymount University, recounted the history of Catholic persecution of Jews. That Jew, Jesus, had nothing more than what could be called "in-house debates" with the Pharisees. But 300 years later, a drive to spread Christianity and prevent conversion to Judaism resulted in the codification of anti-Judaism in Catholic teaching. It was downhill from there, from Crusades, to pogroms, to expulsions, to forced conversions, to the Holocaust. "Is there a deep-seated flaw in [Christianity]?" the professor pondered. "Is Christianity possible without anti-Judaism?"

The Catholic speakers who followed found reason for hope. Whether most Jews realize it or not, Catholic-Jewish relations have been on the uptick for 35 years. First, there was that transcendent moment on Easter Sunday 1962, when Pope John XXIII stopped a choir in mid-song and told them that, henceforth, they would strike the words "perfidious Jews" from the liturgy. In 1965, the pope convened Vatican II and issued a Nostra Aetate that repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jews. The current pope, John Paul II, was the first ever to step foot in a synagogue, on April 13, 1986. On Dec. 30, 1993, he established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. And last year, the pope issued "We Remember," a document that took members of the church to task for their acquiescence to the Holocaust.

Sister Gretchen Hailer, adjunct professor for the School of Ministry in the Stockton Diocese and the Institute for Pastoral Ministry in the Orange Diocese, said even better relations will come from developing personal, one-on-one Catholic-Jewish bonds. And education, the speakers agreed, is crucial. Rabbi Michael Perelmutter, director of the Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, spoke of spreading a Torah scroll before a classroom of Catholic students and going over the letters as Jesus himself did. "This is the Jewish culture we share," he said.

The new church is intent on recognizing its Jewish roots and understanding Judaism as a living "elder brother," said Father Michael Wakefield, pastor of St. Euprasia Church and co-chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue. The new catechism speaks of Judaism in the present tense, and Catholic leaders now refer to the Testaments formerly known as Old and New as Hebrew and Christian. Much better.

So where's the rub? The Holocaust, of course. For many Jews, the nagging problem is that the church has been trying to "Christianize" it while refusing to take fuller responsibility for it. Jewish leaders have castigated the church for canonizing Edith Stein, who converted to Catholicism only to die in Auschwitz, and for allowing nuns to build a seminary at Auschwitz. And in an almost uniform voice, the Jewish leaders have said the "We Remember" document doesn't go far enough in taking responsibility for the church's and pope's behavior during the Holocaust.

At the dialogue, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation said "We Remember" lacked the essential element of repentance -- a full confession of sin.

But the dissenting Jewish voice belonged to Schulweis himself. If the Catholics once forcibly converted the Jews to their faith, Schulweis is now trying to convert them, through dialogues such as this, to believe that Catholicism today is truly different. Vatican II and the actions of John Paul II are unprecedented in 2,000 years, he said. Edith Stein aside ("We lost her fairly and squarely"), an entire entrenched institution, a whole religion, is reconfiguring its theology and publicly apologizing. How dare Jews greet this with a shrug? We need not forgive and forget, said Schulweis, but we must engage in dialogue. "We dare not eternalize anti-Semitism," he said. "It is our intent to popularize the new face of the Church."

For Schulweis and his fellow speakers, last Wednesday night was a good first step. They're not fooled: The conversion of the Jews to accepting Catholic good will is a ways off. And Latino Catholics, who make up the majority of the population in Los Angeles, were barely in evidence at this dialogue. But Schulweis and the event's initiators at the archdiocese promise more outreach to come. Kanefsky spoke of creating an interreligious seder-type ceremony that Catholics and Jews can use together to mark the Holocaust. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western regional director of the AJC, said a small group of rabbis, priests and scholars will meet regularly to continue the dialogue and to provide a guiding hand when controversies erupt.

Maybe it's the millennium spirit, maybe it's Schulweis' contagious passion, but witnesses to the dialogue found it hard to resist hope. At the evening's end, the rabbi and Cardinal Mahoney were supposed to each light three of six memorial candles for the victims of the Holocaust. But as Schulweis went to light his three candles, Mahoney, visibly moved, took his hand, and together both men lit all six. "It was," said Schulweis, "a great moment."

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