When dictator Benito Mussolini’s “Laws for the Defense of the Race” robbed many Italian Jews of their rights and livelihoods in 1938, a Catholic nun, Mother Maria Elisabetta Hesselblad, risked her own life and those of her staff to provide impoverished Jews with clothes and food.
Five years later, when Nazi forces and their sympathizers began moving Roman Jews to concentration camps, Hesselblad again sprang into action, working with Mother Ricarda Beauchamp Hambrough to shelter about 60 Jews in their convent, not only saving the Jews’ lives but, according to one survivor, “respecting our life and religion.”
Both women were honored posthumously on June 10 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with its Medal of Valor. The award was accepted by Father Norbert Hofmann, the secretary of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews. This commission promotes good relationships with the Jewish people by issuing documents instructing church leaders how to address concepts such as the Shoah and the theology of Judaism in a manner that develops reconciliation between the two religions.
One night earlier, Hofmann addressed a diverse audience at the Museum of Tolerance concerning the history of Jewish-Catholic relations and the relationship of the new Pope Francis to the Jewish community. Hofmann also discussed his position in the Catholic Church, which gives him a unique perspective on the Jewish community.
Born in 1959, Hofmann grew up in a German village of 3,000 inhabitants that had only one Jewish family. Eventually, after studying the Old Testament, he traveled to Israel to learn modern Hebrew.
While there, he said, most people saw him as a representative of the Vatican rather than of Germany. He added that his family did not support the Nazis, and that today he believes sometimes German people are even “more sensitive” to issues of religious difference as a result of their role in history.
Appointed to his position in 2003, Hofmann reviewed for the audience Pope Francis’ past relations toward Jews in his home country of Argentina. Before becoming pope, he attended Rosh Hashanah services, signed a petition for justice after the 1994 AMIA Jewish community center bombing and made Jewish friends, according to Hofmann. One of his first actions as pope was to express a desire to renew connections with the Jewish people.
While the pope’s approach to the Jewish community shows his personal style of collaboration, Hofmann said, all popes are bound by chapter four of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican document that decries all forms of anti-Semitism and absolves modern Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus.
While acknowledging that both Jews and Christians descend from Abraham and worship one God, Hofmann was also careful to denote the boundaries between the religions: “Jews and Christians are different. That is not only to be tolerated, but also to be respected.”
Hofmann elaborated on this point in an interview with the Journal afterward.
“You have to be absolutely open to hear and learn, not to [use] your own experiences to categorize the other,” he said. “For example, kosher food to [Catholicism] is not understandable, but I have to respect and understand it.”
Hofmann spoke about the efforts of religious scholars to theologically reconcile the two religions. Many Catholic leaders, he said, now advocate recognizing the continued validity of Jewish covenant over replacement theory, the idea that God’s covenant with the Jews was forgotten with the establishment of the Christian Church.
“We are still far removed from a satisfactory answer,” Hofmann said. “It is our homework to reconcile these theological ideas.”
During discussions about the origins of the two faiths, people often forget that the two religions and their forms of expression developed in a conversation with each other for many centuries, Hofmann said. Their influences of each upon the other deserve further research.
Hofmann encourages Jews to take classes about Catholicism for non-Catholics at universities. Mostly, he said he wishes for people to pray for dialogue, and for Jewish and Catholic families to establish social connections.
“The key is to do things together, to know each other better.”