My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The Jewish high holy days have passed this week. Rosh Hashana is the solemn celebration of the Jewish New Year, which culminates on Friday, Sept. 13, with Yom Kippur. Each year, I show my solidarity with the Rabbis with whom we are in dialogue in the Diocese, as well as other Jewish people who assist us by sending them greetings at this time of year. This is done simply to show our appreciation for the good relationships which we share.
Recently, I read a book entitled “On Heaven and Earth,” which is a dialogue between Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, and Rabbi Abraham Skora, Chief Rabbi of Buenos Aires. The two had a very good relationship and entered into a dialogue, which was put into a small book. There are over 30 subjects about which they spoke. One that is of interest during this time was the Holocaust. Each expressed their deep abhorrence for this terrible genocide. They spoke in very positive terms about the Second Vatican Council and its decree on non-Christian religions and the attitude of Pope John XXIII when he received the Jewish delegation and greeted them by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother.”
The situation of Pope Pius XII was more complex in their dialogue. Although he is recognized and credited for saving the lives of many Jews, there was always the question that more could have been done. Golda Meir, the late Prime Minister of Israel, said upon the death of Pius XII in 1958 that “the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims.” Over the years, The New York Times has written many articles detailing the many good things that the Pope did during the horrible years of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka called as many Jews today in the American Jewish Congress for the opening of the archives, so that the historical question may be settled. It is my belief that these archives are being put in order, so that some day they can be opened. I hope that this can be accomplished soon. I can add my own experience with a Holocaust survivor who was an Italian Jew who worked for me in the Italian Social Service Center that I directed as a young priest in Jersey City, N.J. I always wondered why this woman knew so much about our religion, even to the point of knowing all of our prayers by heart. One day, after many years of working with her, she explained to me how she had been saved with her sister in a convent in Rome. Unfortunately, both of her dear parents perished in the Holocaust. She was hidden in a convent and made to learn our prayers, so that she would be undetectable when questioned about any issue of the Catholic faith. Convents and monasteries sheltered and gave refuge to many Jewish people in Italy. Such activities on behalf of the religious houses of Italy were known to Pope Pius XII, since he had to give permission to lift the enclosure of these houses thus allowing the Jews to be hidden in these religious houses. Evidence of such great work can be found in the story of Franciscans of Assisi and the Dominican Monastery of Santa Maria sopre Minerva in Rome.
Recently, I visited Auschwitz for the first time during my trip to Poland. It was truly a sad visit to a place of horror where so many Jewish people, priests, religious and other people perished. All I could think of was the famous quote, “Never Again.” How true is it that the world can never allow genocide to happen.
Unfortunately, today we see the current situation in Syria with the disregard for human dignity. Although it still is not clear who were the perpetrators, however, whoever they are they have no concern for human life.
Personal Relationships Are Key
I reflect on some of my own experiences as a young boy growing up in Newark, N.J., which had a significant Jewish community. Besides Jewish friends on the block with whom we played, I distinctly remember my grandfather’s barbershop, next to a tailor who was Jewish. Every Saturday, my grandfather would enter the tailor shop and light the steam press for the owner, since Mr. Rose was not able to work on the Sabbath. Both my grandfather and he had a great relationship. Mrs. Rose, who had no grandchildren, kind of adopted me as her own. She took me shopping and showed me the stores in Downtown Newark.
I also remember my father’s Army buddy, George Casten, who lived in Massachusetts and with whom we visited frequently. Mr. Casten was a very devout Jew, went to Synagogue every morning and would drop me off for Mass at the local Catholic Church on his way to prayer. Personal relationships between Catholics and Jews are critical for maintaining a respective dialogue.
In our own Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens, we have a great challenge and opportunity for dialogue because of the various Jewish communities with whom we live. Dialogue can be difficult and also rewarding. While the Jewish people are, indeed, one people, they are made up of different religious communities or denominations. These denominations are distinguished from each other by different understandings or interpretations of Rabbinical or Biblical texts. Thus, there are many ways to be Jewish. One can be a Hasidic Jew, Ultra Orthodox Jew, a Conservative Jew, a Reform Jew, a Reconstructionist Jew and even a secular Jew. All are Jews. Each is distinguished from each other. Unlike Catholicism, there does not exist a Jewish magisterium. Each Jewish movement is its own authority. Such understanding helps the non-Jewish person to better appreciate the wide range of Jewish life. Understanding helps dialogue to happen. As Catholics, we desire to enter into dialogue, for the common good, mutual understanding and appreciation with all Judaism regardless of Jewish internal differences.
This summer, Father Joseph Zwosta returned from Rome with a Licentiate (the equivalent of a master’s degree) in ecumenical theology and interreligious dialogue. He received his degree at the Angelicum through a fellowship endowed by the Russell Berrie Foundation, a philanthropic group established by a Jewish entrepreneur. Father Zwosta has been assigned to assist Msgr. Guy Massie, Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, who holds a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has studied Hebrew and has pursued building and deepening Catholic Jewish dialogue for many years in our Diocese and in our country. There is great opportunity for Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Brooklyn and Queens because we share life, common concerns, similar hopes and faith in the one God who is over all.
Every attempt to dialogue is an exercise of putting out into the deep, since we are never sure where our dialogue will take us. The example of Pope Francis and his friendship with Rabbi Skorka gives us some encouragement to keep speaking to one another, bridging the gaps between our understanding. Because it is only through dialogue that we can develop the relationships necessary to change the difficult, historical relationships of the past.