From the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions NOSTRA AETATE (In Our Time) Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965: In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.
This important and often-overlooked document of the Second Vatican Council proposes three commonalities of humankind are also those that draw members of humankind together: 1.) There truly exists a ‘community of all peoples’; 2.) There truly is a common origin for humankind, ‘God made the whole human race’; 3.) There truly exists a final goal for humankind, ‘the elect will be united in the Holy City…where the nations will walk in His light.’
My topic, antisemitism, applies to the mindset of those members of humanity who would exclude Jews from these aforementioned commonalities. An ugly word and more so a despicable attitude and action in humanity, antisemitism is not the exclusive sin of Christianity, but this is how I am using the term. Let me explain. Some people propose that antisemitism began with Christianity, but most historians and theologians agree that pagan antisemitism has roots in pre-Christian times. This historical consideration is not an exemption for Christianity, but a special shame because Christianity grew from Judaism.
This Lenten period prepares Christians to enter more deeply into what is called the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Immediately preceding Easter, we will be reading passages from the Bible which, if not properly understood, lend an easement into antisemitic attitudes and actions. Especially when we read the Passion of Jesus Christ, we tend to focus on Judas, the Jewish betrayer and to the cry, ” His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matthew 27:25). This last phrase is found only in Matthew’s Gospel and this peculiarity puts forward the question an insightful question, “Why only in Matthew?”
For centuries, this question was not adequately examined and even it were, the explanation to the question would not have satisfied a long-standing belief that Jews were totally responsible for the death of Jesus, the paramount of reasons for Christian antisemitism. Nostra Aetate, however, took heed not only of this response to the question, but other historical and biblical scholarship, and dared to say, “…what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (part 4).
Nostra Aetate is important to me not only as a Holocaust researcher, but as a priest who every year presides at Holy Week and Triduum liturgies. When the congregation shouted, “Crucify him’ with such vengeance it was not difficult to take the command personally for not every pastor is beloved! The dramatic response, however, highlighted for me the misinformed energy of the congregation. Their enthusiasm might be a kind of unintended result of centuries of Christian liturgical antisemitism. It was not impossible during the reading of the passion that many people truly believed that the Jews killed Christ.
What to do? Of course, through years of preaching, I did my best to make the point that Nostra Aetate is the Church’s teaching about who killed Christ. It is ironic but the Holy Week and Triduum liturgies tend to be long and the reading of the passion is partially to blame for this and so a lengthy catechetical homily was not the best solution to passing on this crucial insight into the Church’s 1965 teaching. Such a homily would likely have fallen on already-text-stuffed ears.
Instead, I when reading certain texts, I added the word, ‘some’ as in some of the Jews. It made me feel better for not further contributing to the problem and I suspect that most listeners did not notice. But, after a Mass, a former Jew stopped me and asked if I had added the word ‘some’ or whether it was actually part of the text. I told the parishioner that I had slipped the word in. His reaction was complete stupefaction! He said that, as a former Jew, he was so tired of the annual beating of the drum that reminded him that he was responsible for the death of Jesus, his blood brother in Judaism and his blood redeemer in Christianity. His relief was palpable.
As we near Hoy Week, the Triduum, and the Easter season, it is good for all Christians to become aware of or pass on Nostra Aetate to those who might still be unaware of this important Catholic teaching. To this end, I highly recommend reading (again) Nostra Aetate (In our Time), a two-page document which can be found at this link: Nostra aetate (vatican.va)
Further, excellent historical and biblical insight is offered in four excellent and brief videos pertaining to this very subject. The topics include:
- Judas and Betrayal (“Do you betray me with a kiss?”) with Ruth Langer and Jesper Svartvik
- The Jewish Leaders and Conspiracy (“Looking for a way to arrest Jesus…and kill him.”) with Katharina von Kellenbach and Peter A. Pettit
- The Jewish Crowd, Pilate, and Guilt (“His blood be on us and our children.”) with Victoria Barnett, Philip Cunningham, and Adam Gregerman
- The Crucifixion and Accountability (“And they took him away and crucified him.”) with Mary Boys, John Pawlikowski, and Elena Procario-Foley
These can be found at: ICCJ: Passion Video Series
I am indebted to labors of the Christian Scholars Group (in collaboration with the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) and the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ)) and to Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning for the explicit permission to share their compilation of the videos in a series called, “Presenting the Passion … without blaming “the Jews”.