By Father Michael Lynch
I grew up in New York City — Manhattan — in the company of a Catholic family and Catholic neighbors attending the local Catholic school and the Catholic church on the corner. I didn’t have any non-Catholic friends.
The only Jewish people I knew were my family’s doctors and my family’s landlords who owned the furniture store in our building. The Bernsteins were a lovely older couple. They doted on us, giving us sweets and little toys from their furniture store. Once when I was in the store, Mrs. Bernstein noticed my quizzical look upon seeing a strange tattoo — a series of numbers — on Mr. Bernstein’s forearm. He said nothing; she said very little. With a simple smile, she said, as older folk do, “Someday you will understand.” Then she added, looking directly at me, “Never forget what you see.” I never have.
Years later, I began to know Jews in my life at jobs I held and as casual acquaintances. There was a temple just up the street, but I’d never stepped inside the doors. We simply didn’t do that where I came from. It wasn’t until I was in Rome that I first entered a synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Rome. Pope John Paul II visited there in April 1986; the first Pope to visit the synagogue.
I was a student in Rome at the time and took a lead from His Holiness and visited that following weekend. That fall semester I began a stint as a tour guide in Rome to the Roman Jewish Ghetto for English-speaking pilgrims, having been trained by the community at SIDIC (The Sisters of Zion). Thus began my long quest to know more about “our older sisters and brothers in faith,” as they are honorably called in the words of St. John Paul. I visited the Holy Land the next year as part of an academic biblical study tour. All of this would inform my work and ministry as I returned to the Diocese of Brooklyn as a priest with a degree in Ecumenical and Interreligious studies.
Here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, there is a deeply respected and highly regarded Roman Catholic-Jewish dialogue where leaders of both faith traditions come together as thought-partners to discuss critical theological and social histories and attitudes. You may know that every Lent, preaching guidelines are sent to the priests and deacons of the Roman Catholic Church around the world to help remind us of the necessity of sensitivity to the Gospel readings of St. John that are so prevalent in the Lectionary before Easter.
These texts have for so long been misread, misunderstood, and sadly at times misrepresented. We know from medieval times (beginning in the 4th century) through the Second World War to today, anti-Semitism has been an ugly part of human history. Tomes have been written about the cruelties of the Church against the Jewish people. The reality of the horrors of the Holocaust (Shoah) has become more evident to us in definitive studies of history and sociology. I have never forgotten Mr. Bernstein’s tattoo; neither should anyone. In recent times, anti-Semitism has surfaced in print media and online. Conspiracy theories and anti-Judaism signals are all around us.
We run the risk of being so over-saturated that we are hardly aware these ugly words are a part of our thinking and praying. As we enter more deeply into the Lenten Season, we have an opportunity to examine our consciousness and consciences.
It is sometimes easy and even convenient to blame “the other” for something we do not understand or comprehend. Scare tactics and victimization are used to foment hatred and rancor. For centuries Jews were called “Christ-killers.” Biblical scholars and theologians have worked to eradicate this false attestation to the descendants of the people of Jesus’ time and place. In a time of oppression and occupation, we know it was the Roman Governors who commanded the situation and the circumstances around the death of Jesus. And fear ruled.
Even now, one can hear some talk of COVID-19 being the fault of the Jews. This rhetoric of blame and hate has been heard in our city, in our own parishes. We must bring a stop to it. Maybe we could use the recently published words of the French Catholic Bishops Conference (CEF) as food for thought and direction:
“Let us remember that Jesus, the ‘Word of God’ himself prayed the Psalms, read the Law and the prophets. At the very heart of our liturgical actions and of our personal prayer, by receiving and proclaiming the texts of the Old Testament, with the apostle Paul, we remember that ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29). If faith in Jesus distinguishes us and separates us, it also obliges us, in memory of the terribly dark hours of history and keeping in mind the victims of the Shoah and the anti-Semitic murders of recent decades, to acknowledge this: to remedy anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism is the indispensable foundation of true brotherhood on a universal scale. This therapy is a demanding path on which all humans must help one another. It begins with ‘spiritual resistance to antisemitism.’ ”
— French Catholic Bishops, Feb 1 (unofficial translation)
People of good faith have gathered for centuries to alleviate communal suffering. It is time for us to continue the good and gracious work of talking to our neighbors. Rabbis and Catholic clergy and religious have been at the forefront of the conversation to create a dialogue of love. Dialogue needs partners, neighbors, friends. Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, calls all people to this dialogue of love.
Father Lynch is vicar for ecumenical & interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Brooklyn. He is pastor of Our Lady of the Cenacle Parish in Richmond Hill, Queens.