Catholic World News News Feature

Jewish leaders cannot accept a prayer for conversion February 07, 2008

Jewish leaders wanted Pope Benedict XVI to change the wording of the prayer for Jews in the traditional Good Friday liturgy. The Pope honored their request; he made a change. But the Jewish leaders aren't happy.

"While we appreciate that the text avoids any derogatory language toward Jews, it's regretful that the prayer explicitly calls for Jews to accept Christianity," said Rabbi David Rosen, the director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. He said that he had hoped for a more explicit Catholic recognition of "the value of the Torah as the vehicle of salvation for the Jewish people."

Unfortunately, what Rabbi Rosen wanted was a statement incompatible with the Catholic faith. Jesus Christ and his Church offer the one means of salvation-- for Christians, for Jews, for everyone. To suggest that some people can follow an alternative path to salvation would require renunciation of a central Christian dogma.

In amending the Good Friday prayer, Pope Benedict eliminated a reference to the "blindness" of the Jews, clearly hoping to avoid giving offense. But the revised prayer still includes an unmistakably clear plea "that God our Lord might enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind."

When we Christians offer this prayer, we are not showing contempt for Jews, but love. Loving our neighbors means wanting what is best for them, and we know that what is best for the Jewish people, in the long run, is incorporation into the Body of Christ: membership in the Church, which offers, in the sacraments, the sure means of attaining salvation. If we failed to pray for the conversion of Jews, that would be a sign of our indifference or worse.

Using the revised language the Pope Benedict has authorized, Catholics who use the 1962 Roman Missal for Good Friday services will continue to pray earnestly for Jews, using language that has now been purged of the words that might have caused unnecessary offense. The Pope has taken a remarkable initiative, making a unilateral gesture to accommodate the concerns expressed by some world Jewish leaders. And the result?

In Italy, the Rabbinical Assembly announced that the Pope's gesture was "an abandonment of the very conditions for dialogue" and announced a pause in talks with the Catholic Church. In the US, Abraham Foxman, the outspoken director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his group was "deeply troubled and disappointed" by the prayer for conversion, and said the changes made by Pope Benedict were merely "cosmetic revisions."

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Affairs-- and a prelate known for his friendly approach to Jewish interlocutors-- was taken aback by these angry reactions. "I do not understand why Jews cannot accept this," he told Corriere della Sera. Jewish leaders should recognize that the prayers of the Catholic liturgy will match the doctrine of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Kasper told the Italian daily. "We are free to formulate our own prayers."

Elaborating on the point during an interview broadcast on Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper explained that in revising the Good Friday prayer: "The Holy Father wanted to say, 'Yes, Jesus Christ is the savior of all men-- including the Jews.'"

Is it a surprise that Catholics proclaim Jesus Christ as the only savior of the world? It should not be. In his criticism of the amended prayer, Rabbi Rosen observed that the language "differs greatly from the text in the current universal liturgy that prays for the salvation of the Jews in general terms." That observation is accurate-- and it is an indictment of the language in the Novus Ordo prayer.

Abraham Foxman also noticed the difference between the prayer of the 1962 Missal, even in its revised form, and the language used in most Catholic churches today. The older prayer, he said is "a major departure from the teachings and actions of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and numerous authoritative Catholic documents, including Nostra Aetate." Here Foxman moves out of the region of hyperbole and into the realm of nonsense. The language of the 1962 Missal, with its petition for the conversion of Jews, has been used constantly in the Catholic Church. It was used in some churches, with full ecclesiastical approval, during the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II. It was used by the fathers of Vatican II, who approved Nostra Aetate. The language approved by Pope Benedict XVI is not a departure from Church teaching, but an affirmation of the entire Catholic tradition.

Early this year, when rumors began circulating that Pope Benedict would revise the language of the Good Friday prayer, some Jewish leaders apparently hoped for a radical change. But if they expected a break from tradition-- in a prayer designed specifically for the traditional liturgy-- they were sadly misguided.

Those same rumors worried some traditionalist Catholics, who feared that the Pope might eliminate the petition for the conversion of the Jews. Those fears were misplaced. Of all the people in the world, Pope Benedict may be the one least likely to overlook the central and necessary role of the Catholic Church in the economy of salvation.

When the revised text appeared, with the plea for conversion as clear as ever, some traditionalists (including more than a few CWN readers) raised another objection. The Pope, they said, had bowed to public pressure. The Scriptures offer ample support for the old language, with its reference to "blindness," they argued; why should that language be eliminated to satisfy critics outside the Church?

It's true, of course, that the Bible does speak of "blindness" among those who do not believe. But not every Bible lesson must be incorporated into every prayer. And there is warrant in Scripture, too, for special sensitivity toward those who might be offended by our language. Isaiah said of the Chosen One: "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench."

Pope Benedict did not bow to outside pressure; he did not back away from the constant teaching of the Church. He made an extra effort, taking a step that he was under no obligation to take, to show goodwill. The Bible-- especially the New Testament-- offers plenty of justification for that approach, too.