Interfaith Leaders: Jewish groups may be overreacting to Catholic prayer

NEW YORK (RACHEL ZOLL – Associated Press, Thursday, March 6, 2008 11:56 PM PST) —- The Anti-Defamation League was “deeply troubled” by the prayer. Conservative Jewish rabbis said they were “dismayed and deeply disturbed” by its language.

But some veteran interfaith leaders —- Jewish and Roman Catholic —- say there’s no evidence that a revised Good Friday liturgy approved last month by Pope Benedict XVI is as threatening as some Jewish groups fear.

“Rather than overreact, we need to look to the future of the Jewish community and this pope,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director for interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, a leader in building Jewish ties with the Vatican.

The prayer fueling the tension is infamous among Jewish leaders, but little known by the overwhelming majority of Catholics and Jews worldwide. It had historically been used as an excuse for violence and discrimination against Jews.

The prayer is from the old Latin Mass, also known as the Tridentine rite. The church had put tight restrictions on celebrating the rite after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. A New Mass emerged from the council, which was celebrated mainly in local languages.

Benedict last year relaxed the rules on the old Latin rite, partly to mend ties with traditionalists and Catholic schismatics who had objected to the council’s reforms.

But the old Latin rite contains a Good Friday prayer that asks God to lift “the veil” from Jewish hearts and deliver them from “blindness” and “darkness” so they might accept Christ.

Earlier this month, Benedict answered Jewish concerns about the prayer. In a reformulation, he eliminated the most offending language, while still asking God “to enlighten their hearts” so that Jews —- and all humanity —- can be saved through the church.

Many Jewish leaders reacted angrily. They feared it signaled a rollback in the church’s commitment to Nostra Aetate, the 1965 document that revolutionized Catholic-Jewish ties.

Philip Cunningham, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations, said he understands why Jews are upset. In his many talks with Jewish audiences, he is almost always asked whether the improvements in the church’s relationship with Jews are temporary.

“My response is that there’s a body of teaching there that’s difficult to reverse,” he said.

Regarding the revised Good Friday prayer, Cunningham said that “99 percent of the Catholic world” uses the New Mass, which has “no mention of Jews coming to faith in Jesus the Savior. There’s not even a hint of it.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a training institute and think tank based in New York, was more blunt.

“The Catholic Church, unlike some religions in the world, has come through its murderous period and is neither violent nor dangerous, so Jews should chill out,” he said.

Some of the anxiety stems from the fact that Benedict is a relatively new pope.

He was elected three years ago, and Jewish leaders are only at the start of their relationship with him. His predecessor, John Paul II, did more than any other pope to build Catholic-Jewish ties during his 26-year pontificate, including praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site.

Benedict has made his own significant gestures. He became only the second pope, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue, visiting a Cologne, Germany, synagogue in 2005 during his first trip abroad as pontiff. He also visited Auschwitz the next year, although some Jewish leaders said they were disappointed that Benedict, a German who lived through World War II, didn’t make a more explicit reference to German responsibility for the genocide.

Greenebaum said Jewish groups need to consider Benedict’s broader goals in reviving the old Latin rite: helping restore a strong sense of Catholic identity and promoting Catholic unity.

“I think the Jewish community needs to always keep things in context,” Greenebaum said. “This is a pope who has a very strong sense of his own beliefs and his own philosophy, and I know that he has made positive statements about Jews.”

Jewish leaders will have a chance to air their concerns directly to Benedict, when he meets with them during his April visit to the United States, his first as pope.

Meanwhile, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, is trying to reassure the Jewish community.

“Central to the concerns of the Holy Father is the clear articulation that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and his Church,” Sklba said in a statement. “It is a faith that must never be imposed but always freely chosen.

“The Catholic Church in the United States remains steadfastly committed to deepening its bonds of friendship and mutual understanding with the Jewish community.”