Prague meeting of Jews, Catholics marks 'new spirit' of cooperation

November 05, 1990|By Diane Winston

In the early 1960s, when Rabbi Joel Zaiman attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, its students were counseled to stay out of Christian churches. Last year, when Bishop William H. Keeler was installed as archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baltimore, Rabbi Zaiman attended the service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

What a difference a generation makes.

"Twenty-five years ago, we had no social intercourse," said Rabbi Zaiman of Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore. "Today, there is a sense we can meet and greet each other as religious communities that respect and value one another."

The dialogue between Jews and Roman Catholics has rebounded in recent months after several years of bared teeth. In September, Rabbi Zaiman and Archbishop Keeler traveled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, for an international dialogue between representatives of the two faiths.

The discussion, which brought together members of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation, was the first formal meeting of the two groups in five years.

By the meeting's end, representatives hailed a "new spirit" of cooperation, as well as concrete plans to combat anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe and to prepare a Catholic document on historical anti-Semitism and the destruction of European Jewry.

Moreover, some of these same participants -- including Rabbi Zaiman but not Archbishop Keeler, who has local commitments -- will meet again next month in Rome to commemorate the 25th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate." The Latin title was given to a document from the Second Vatican Council recognizing the common spiritual heritage between Jews and Christians.

After the publication of "Nostra Aetate," Catholic leaders -- including many in the United States -- worked to implement its teachings by reforming texts and curricula that had blamed Jews for Jesus' death and portrayed them as a God-forsaken people. Moreover, in some communities, members of the two faiths began meeting to discuss their biases and beliefs.

From these dialogues grew the understanding and trust that found expression in joint social programs and ecumenical services.

In Baltimore, there are ongoing discussions between Jews and Catholics, and the Baltimore Archdiocese will sponsor a two-day workshop to commemorate "Nostra Aetate" starting March 7.

The Baltimore Archdiocese has 450,000 parishioners, and there are about 90,000 Jews locally.

"Here in the U.S., we are opening new doors for discussion and cooperation all the time," Archbishop Keeler said last week. "Even as we do, we find areas of difference which merit discussion and areas we agree on which we never imagined we would share."

The relationship between Christians and Jews has been strained since the earliest days of the church. Some scholars say many of the New Testament diatribes against the Jews were written to win converts and to differentiate Christian beliefs from their Old Testament sources.

For centuries afterward, once Christianity became a powerful religion, Jews -- castigated as "Christ-killers" -- were persecuted and forced to live in ghettos. Often they had to choose between death or conversion. After the 18th century, Jews were accepted into society and allowed to practice their religion. But the deep roots of anti-Semitism held fast.

Adolf Hitler tapped these roots in his rise to power and his subsequent extermination of 6 million Jews. But the role of theological anti-Semitism in setting the stage for this tragedy was not officially addressed by the Catholic Church until "Nostra Aetate."

After "Nostra Aetate," grass-roots Jewish-Catholic discussions flourished, especially in the United States. Still, there were no large-scale initiatives until 1985, when Pope John Paul II declared his interest in improving relations between the two faiths. The next year, he attended services at the synagogue in Rome -- the first such visit by the head of the Catholic Church. Jews, initially excited by the pontiff's dramatic actions, soon felt betrayed. They balked when Pope John Paul II visited with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim -- accused of complicity in Jewish deaths during World War II; they chafed when the Vatican beatified Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who had converted to Catholicism and died in a concentration camp; and they protested when a group of Carmelite nuns refused to move their convent from the Auschwitz death camp.

The friction slowed dialogue for three years. But Eugene Fisher, director for Catholic-Jewish Relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, believes these bumps are part of the path.

"I look at the controversies as part of the pain of healing," he said. "It surfaced how each of the communities remember and go about remembering the Holocaust."

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