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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Small changes, big setbacks

Paradoxical efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to promote interreligious dialogue and at the same time reassert Catholic superiority are visible in the current flap over reviving, then revising, the wording of prayers that some Catholics will use this Good Friday calling for conversion of the Jews. Language is a tool of both hospitality and affront. Unavoidably, the pope’s dual agenda has raised concerns that longstanding efforts to heal Jewish-Christian relations are being undermined.

It has taken four popes, beginning with Pius XII, to back the church away from language in the liturgy that referred to “the perfidious Jews” living in the darkness of unbelief and complicity in the death of Jesus Christ. This idea was directly confronted in the church’s 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which acknowledged the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jews and condemned every form of anti-Semitism. John Paul II, a witness to the Holocaust, worked tirelessly to reduce tensions and to advance Jewish-Christian dialogue. In March 2000, he prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, grieving for the long history of suffering inflicted on the Jews, our brothers and sisters, the children of Abraham.

Since the 1970 revision of the Roman missal, Catholics on Good Friday have said, “Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption.”

The absence of an explicit call for conversion is consistent with the understanding that God’s covenant with the Jews is valid. This has been the voice of the official church at prayer for almost 40 years.

That is until last summer, when Benedict approved general use of the Tridentine missal for the Latin Mass, including the Latin prayers for the Jews, their veiled hearts and blind eyes. After concerns were expressed, Benedict removed much of the imagery but retained the thrust of the prayer as a call for conversion of Jews.

A bump in the road or a change in direction? Time will tell. It is because this road and our time are so crucial, so linked to interreligious relations and even, potentially, world peace, that even small changes can seem like big setbacks.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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