The following is a comment Father Harrison sent to the web site of the New Jersey Jewish News, in response to an article they published on the Good Friday prayer controversy. We post it here with his kind permission. Father points out that the 1970 liturgy contains multiple prayers for the conversion of the Jews. The controversy is much ado about nothing.
Dear ‘NJ Jewish News’,
I hope you will post this rather lengthy comment even though I am a conservative Catholic priest who frankly welcomes Pope Benedict’s new Good Friday prayer. I can understand that quite a few Jews may find it disappointing; but I’d like to explain here why they can at least recognize that it has the merit of providing a kind of ‘reality check’ as to where the Catholic Church in fact officially stands in regard to Judaism.
For the truth is that our Church always has prayed, and always will, for the conversion of Jesus’ own people to belief in him as Son of God and Messiah. (How could it be otherwise? Since Christians believe that this is the objective truth about who Jesus really is, how could we NOT want our Jewish brethren – or any other non-Christians for that matter – to recognize such a tremendous truth?)
In fact, Pope Benedict’s new prayer is not a “step backward”, because it merely repeats what the Church has never stopped doing, both before and after Vatican Council II, namely, praying for Jews to become Christians. I am surprised that liberal Catholic church leaders such as Cardinals Kasper and Keeler, Fr. Lawrence Frizzell, and others, have apparently never revealed to their Jewish partners in dialogue the following little ‘secret’: they and all Roman Catholic clergy (not just a tiny group of less than 1% using Latin, like those who will use the new Good Friday prayer) have been praying several times a year, in the revised post-Vatican II vernacular liturgy, for the Jews to recognize Jesus as the Christ.
How so? Well, most Jews know that the main act of Catholic worship is the Mass, but probably only a few would be aware that it is supplemented by the “Liturgy of the Hours” or “Divine Office”. This is a series of four 1500-page volumes, promulgated by the Pope, containing the prayers which all of us clergy (deacons, priests and bishops) are required to recite over the course of a year, at five different hours of each day and night. Nuns and religious brothers, and some devout lay Catholics as well, also recite at least the major prayers of the Divine Office every day.
Now, on at least seven days of the year, these prayers include petitions for the Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah. For instance, on the last day of every year (December 31 at “Lauds” or “Morning Prayer”), we pray: “O Christ, God and man, you fulfil the prophecies as David’s Lord as well as his son: we beseech you that Israel may recognize you as Messiah (te rogamus, ut Israel te Messiam agnoscat)”.
Second only to the Mass in importance for Catholic worship is Evening Prayer (“Vespers”), and throughout the whole 7-week Easter season there is an evening prayer for the conversion of the Jews almost every week. Sometimes this is only implied, as for instance, at Vespers on the vigil of the final (7th) Sunday of the season, wherein the Church addresses the following prayer to Jesus: “May all the peoples praise you as King and God, and may Israel become your possession” (et Israel fiat possessio tua). (That is, may the sons and daughters of Israel become incorporated into Christ’s Church.) And for Vespers on Wednesday of the second and fourth weeks of Easter we find this prayer: “[O God], who chose your Son’s first disciples from among the Jewish people, reveal to the children of Israel the solemn promise (repromissio) made to their fathers.” (This is a reference to the promise announced to their fellow-Jews by Peter and the other apostles at Pentecost, that they would receive the Holy Spirit and salvation by believing in Christ and accepting baptism.)
Very explicit, on the other hand, is the Vespers prayer for Easter Sunday – the most important of all the annual Catholic feasts. It addresses Jesus in these words: “May Israel recognize in you the Christ she is hoping for (Israel in te Christum spei suae agnoscat), and may the whole earth be filled with the knowledge of your glory.” This prayer is then repeated on the evenings of the third and fifth Sundays of the Easter season.
In short, Benedict XVI’s “new” prayer for Good Friday simply reaffirms the 2,000-year-old Christian doctrine found in these other post-conciliar prayers – now in their 37th year of continuous use! They are no doubt an embarrassment to “progressive” Catholic bishops and priests. But in any case the latter have, it seems, merely been leading Jews to adopt their own erroneous wishful thinking by keeping silent during dialogue sessions about all these official post-Vatican-II ‘conversionist’ prayers.
Father Brian Harrison, O.S., S.T.D.
Emeritus Professor of Theology,
Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico