Jew complains to cardinal over homily heard at Mass

June 21, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

A complaint lodged with Cardinal William H. Keeler, accusing a Roman Catholic priest of "blatant anti-Semitism" in a sermon, has drawn an apology and a clarification from the preacher.

The incident at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen also has prompted the American Jewish Committee and the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies to announce plans for interfaith seminars for Baltimore clergy designed "to address the anti-Judaic bias of the New Testament that so often finds its way into Christian preaching."

Penny Catzen, a Jewish Bolton Hill resident who is a librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, complained in a letter to Cardinal Keeler that the homilist at the cathedral's 9:15 a.m. Mass June 4 referred to "the Jews, the people who killed Jesus."

She said she was in the congregation that morning because her Catholic granddaughter was receiving her first Holy Communion. "I had understood," Mrs. Catzen wrote, "that the Catholic Church had officially repudiated the doctrine that the Jews as a people were responsible for Jesus' death, but such a statement, at a Mass intended for children, would belie that assumption."

Mrs. Catzen sent copies of her letter to the Baltimore chapter of the American Jewish Committee, of which her husband, Robert W. Catzen, is a board member, and to the Baltimore regional office of B'nai B'rith.

The priest who made the controversial remark is the Rev. Heinrich J. Losemann Jr., an associate pastor at the cathedral. He was ordained in 1992.

A reporter's request to Father Losemann for an explanation and the context of his statement was referred by the priest to William Blaul, a spokesman for Cardinal Keeler. Mr. Blaul said the cardinal asked Father Losemann to respond in writing to Mrs. Catzen's letter.

In the reply, the priest said, "The Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday, which is taken from the Gospel of John, states that, 'The disciples had locked the doors of the place where they were for fear of the Jews . . .' The use of the term 'the Jews' is not meant to apply to the Jewish people as such, but to the people who sought Jesus' death. The passage seeks to convey the disciples' sense of fear that what had happened to Jesus would also happen to them, and the transformation which occurred when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Assuring Mrs. Catzen that "the Catholic Church has officially repudiated the doctrine that the Jews as a people were responsible for Jesus' death," Father Losemann added, "I do not remember the exact words which I used, but I certainly did not intend to make any anti-Semitic statements or to offend anyone. I do appreciate your sensitivity to the issue, and the fact that it was brought to my attention. Please be assured that I will make every effort to be more careful in the wording of my homilies in the future."

Mrs. Catzen said she was grateful to Father Losemann for apologizing to her twice -- first on the telephone and then in his letter. But she also said she considered his homily an example of unconscious, unintentional anti-Semitism that showed the need for the planned colloquiums for priests and ministers.

Lois Rosenfield, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the American Jewish Committee, also wrote to Mrs. Catzen.

"I understand your concern," Ms. Rosenfield said, "and am pleased to tell you that the American Jewish Committee is planning with the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies to sponsor preaching colloquiums prior to the 1995 Advent/Christmas season and prior to the 1996 Lent/Easter time" to counter "anti-Judaic bias" in Christian sermons during .. those periods of the year.

In a request to the Jewish committee for funds to offset the costs of the programs, the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies said the need for the clergy education being proposed "is predicated on four basic assumptions":

* "That Christian attitudes toward Judaism and the Jewish people are profoundly shaped by Christian preaching."

* "That most Christian preachers have little awareness of the anti-Judaic bias that underlies the Gospels."

* "That Christians all too often hear their sacred texts proclaimed in ways that enshrine a diminished understanding of the continuing vitality of Judaism and the Jewish people."

* "That Christianity has a profound need to reverse a nearly 2,000-year-old tradition of interpreting the Hebrew Bible as the promise fulfilled in and by" the New Testament.

One of the objectives of the seminars will be to "confront the polemical edge that so often characterizes Christian preaching," Ms. Rosenfield said. As proposed by the institute, participants in the interfaith seminars "will include a significant cross-section of the rabbinate who will provide an opportunity for Christian clergy to experience firsthand how Jews interpret texts also held sacred by Christians."

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