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The Conversion of the Jews?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 20, 2008

Pope Benedict’s efforts to expand the use of the Tridentine Mass have raised Jewish concerns about the traditional Good Friday liturgy. At issue is the prayer for the conversion of the Jews, which is one of the intercessory prayers for those belonging to various non-Catholic religious groups. These prayers are unique to the Good Friday liturgy, which consists of the reading of the Passion, the extended intercessory prayers, the veneration of the Cross, and the distribution of Communion using previously-consecrated hosts. The furor over the prayer relating to the Jewish people provides a good opportunity to reflect on two sides of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Prior History of the Prayer

When the Tridentine Mass was first promulgated in 1570 (the result of a liturgical reform initiated at the Council of Trent), the most controversial portion of the prayer for the Jews read: “Oremus et pro perfidies Judaeis.” The original Latin sense of this prayer was: “Let us pray also for the unbelieving Jews.” However, the common translation of perfidies by the English cognate “perfidious” created problems, because over time that English word came to have the extremely unflattering connotation of faithlessness arising from treachery. Of course, the liturgy was not celebrated in English, but by the twentieth century most people were using missals which contained the Latin and the English on alternate pages.

Aware of this problem in the midst of the ecumenical movement in the 1950’s, Pope Pius XII ordered in 1955 that perfidies be translated as “unbelieving”. In 1959, Pope John XXIII dropped perfidies altogether, and it does not appear in the 1962 revision of the Roman Missal (the last revision prior to the far more extensive reform of the liturgy, commonly called the “Novus Ordo”, by Paul VI in 1970). Most readers know that the proper current terminology for these two liturgical texts is as follows: The 1962 Missal is termed the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite; the 1970 Missal and its subsequent revisions is termed the “ordinary form” of the Roman rite. Since 1962, then, the extraordinary form, still celebrated in Latin, has rendered the passage in question as: “Let us pray also for the Jews.” Here is the entire text of the prayer:

For the conversion of Jews: Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, you do not refuse your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness.

Note that the purpose of this prayer is to ask God to overcome the failure of the Jews to recognize Christ as the Messiah. Any words which might appear negative are firmly embedded in this context of Christians wishing Jews the benefits of Faith in Christ. In other words, in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the prayer in question emphasizes what Christians believe Jews are lacking in the Divine relationship they are intended to enjoy.

A Shift in Perspective

Also in the early 1960’s, the Second Vatican Council issued notable documents on both ecumenism (among Christians) and, in Nostra Aetate, on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. While emphasizing that the fullness of the means of salvation is to be found only in the Catholic Church, Vatican II also explored the varying ways in which God is able to work outside of the Church. To take just three examples, the Council spoke of the role of Scripture for non-Catholic Christians, the Old Testament and original Covenant for the Jews out of which the New Covenant grew, and the operations of the natural law for non-believers. Reflecting this emphasis on the positive elements of the Divine plan elsewhere at work, the ordinary form of the Roman Rite altered the intercessory prayers to emphasize what is present in the relationship with God possessed by each group. Thus the prayer for the Jews reads:

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.

This prayer emphasizes that God spoke to the Jews in the Old Covenant, and that the Jews received immensely important promises through Abraham and his descendants. It still begs God to bring the Jewish people to the fullness of redemption (in Christ). But in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, clearly, the prayer emphasizes not what Christians believe is lacking but what they believe the Jews already possess in their relationship with God.

Benedict’s Latest Change

When Benedict decided to order a more generous use of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, a number of Jewish leaders protested that this would be a giant step backward in Catholic-Jewish relations. They were thinking particularly of that awkward word “perfidies”, which several media outlets (typically ignorant of things Catholic) erroneously reported was to be revived. This word had of course been dropped 48 years earlier, as the Vatican quickly made clear. But there were also other terms and concepts at stake. One Jewish group after another either issued negative statements or requested clarifications. Accordingly, Benedict took a long look at the prayer and decided to implement a revision. In February, he mandated the following text, given here in both languages, though it will be spoken only in Latin:

Oremus et pro Iudaeis. Ut Deus et Dominus noster illuminet corda eorum, ut agnoscant Iesum Christum salvatorem omnium hominum. [Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.] Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui vis ut omnes homines salvi fiant et ad agnitionem veritatis veniant, concede propitius, ut plenitudine gentium in Ecclesiam Tuam intrante omnis Israel salvus fiat. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Let us also pray for the Jews: that God our Lord might enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind. [Let us pray. Let us bend our knees (kneel). Please rise.] Almighty and eternal God, whose desire it is that all men might be saved and come to the knowledge of truth, grant in your mercy that as the fullness of mankind enters into your Church, all Israel may be saved, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Clearly Benedict desired here to remove any terms which might still appear to be derogatory (“blindness”, “veil”, “darkness”), and it seems likely that he considered even the term “conversion” to be a red flag, though he left the concept intact. Whatever the case, he retains the spirit of the extraordinary form, with its emphasis not on what the Jewish people already possess, but on what they are lacking, asking that this may be supplied to them through Christ and the Church.

The Two Sides of the Coin

Some Jewish representatives are still unhappy. Others understand that any religious body, if it is true to itself, ought to hope and pray that others will receive the spiritual benefits it holds to be so precious. Ultimately, however, the position that the Jews are lacking something is a source of discomfort for those who have come to equate inter-religious progress with a Catholic admission that one religion is as good as another. For example, the request for clarification issued by the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism on February 14th expressed surprise at the call for conversion in view of the following points of recent Catholic-Jewish history: (1) Jewish leaders (they said) had succeeded in convincing the Fathers of Vatican II to remove a passage calling for the conversion of the Jews in Nostra Aetate; (2) Beginning in 1970 the reformed liturgy (ordinary form) emphasized the spiritual riches of the Jewish people; (3) John Paul II had used the term “elder brothers” in referring to the Jews; and (4) Cardinal Walter Kasper (head of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews) had “announced publicly on several occasions that the Catholic Church no longer maintains an office for the conversion of the Jewish people”.

It is hardly surprising that the RACJ wondered what, if anything, the Pope intended by the revival of the older Good Friday liturgy and his subsequent emendation of it. Nor is it surprising that Jews should be very interested in the answer. But it is both surprising and unfortunate that any inquirer or commentator who has a sincere religious faith of his own should have concluded from recent history that the Church no longer desired all men to be brought to the fullness of Christ. The attitude that it does not matter what others believe is incompatible with true spiritual conviction of any kind.

What has been going on in Catholic-Jewish relations since World War II has been a new emphasis on the kinship between Judaism and Christianity, but without any loss of conviction that Jesus Christ is the one Mediator between God and men. That a more positive emphasis should have developed rapidly after World War II is hardly surprising, given both the preeminent tragedy of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and many other cultural developments since that time. Yet despite this shift, the prayers in the two forms of the Roman Rite continue to represent the Jews specifically in their relationship to God’s salvific plan, just as both prayers continue to insist that the fullness of that plan is realized only in Christ and the Church. One prayer implies the other, and vice versa, for the two prayers simply accentuate opposite sides of the same redemptive coin—the coin with which the ultimate well-being of each and every person must be purchased.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Feb. 20, 2019 12:18 PM ET USA

    A good essay but with two underemphasized elements. Little mention of how merciless it is to ignore the victims of sin, like the slaughtered preborn for example, and why we should not be cowards in condemning evil behavior, like fornication for example. The other is the problem of having a pope with a mind too adolescent to comprehend his mercilessness towards the victims of sin.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 16, 2019 6:47 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the great essay. It makes me wonder, who is the real neo-Pelagian? The one who follows Divine Revelation and the Commandments, or one who "follows his own conscience" instead?

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 15, 2019 10:57 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: Cory - Feb. 15, 2019 1:16 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis ought to read this. But I wonder if he will understand. Most likely not, because he is completely sold on the 'talk of mercy' cool aid.