It’s the middle of November. The clocks have been set back. This is when you see the real Poland: sleety and smelling of chimney smoke. The sun will set today at 3:55 p.m.
It’s dark and cold in church, too. On a really crisp morning, you can see your breath. Makes you want to sing a dirge about the sufferings of Christ. That would be very Polish, too.
Here in the sanctuary, the elevated front of the church, you see the altar. Behind it the gold box called the tabernacle (after Moses’s tent). This particular one is topped by a representation of the Burning Bush. It contains the blessed unleavened bread that Catholics believe is the real presence of God.
And here is a bench to pray on. It’s called a stall. The little ledge is for your breviary, the book of psalms.
This is where I sit in my black cape, last in the row of friars and closest to the tabernacle — which in our monastery is a sign of lowly status.
As I drone out in Polish the translation of King David’s prayers, I gaze across the sanctuary to the opposite wall. And there, yards long and yards high, is this 400-year-old image.
It’s a 17th-century painting by the assistants of a painter called Tomasso Dolabella, an Italian then working in Poland. It was rescued from an earlier incarnation of our Poznań church that is now in someone else’s hands. It shows a Dominican doing what we do best: preach. We are officially “The Order of Preachers,” after all.
Evening after evening, I contemplate this painting. And I’ve found something troubling to contemplate. There are Jews in my church, other than the one on the cross.
The Dominican on the pulpit is (Saint) Vincent Ferrer, a Spanish preacher of the 14th and 15th centuries. His listeners are Jews — and, to the far left, Muslims in turbans.
Let me give you a better, fuller picture of this image. In our community in Krakow, which is older and richer than the one here, we have a massive canvas with the same motif — one from about 100 years later.
The giant daub — about 5 yards long — is displayed in a big public space: a cloister-walk.
And we’re not hiding the painting. Along with the rest of the works in this corridor, it was carefully restored and rehung with fancy LED lighting in 2012.
A brother of mine took pictures of it for you. You can click on them for a larger-sized version:
Here we see Vincent, who was canonized by the pope in 1455. When I lived in Krakow, I walked under him every time I went out of the house.
Vincent is said to have been responsible for the conversion of many Jews to Catholicism — perhaps as many as twenty-five thousand. One of his converts, a former rabbi by the name of Solomon ha-Levi, went on to become the Bishop of Cartagena and later the Archbishop of Burgos.
Spain in Vincent’s time was a roiling soup-pot. Though he couldn’t have known it, a mass expulsion of Jews was due at century’s end.
Yet he did something to bring on that expulsion. Vincent explicitly denounced violence, but bloody riots broke out where he spoke. The violence was used as a reason to call in the state to “protect” Jews. To some, that foreshadows the czars. Or Goebbels.
Jews have a hard time calling Vincent “Saint”: according to the historian Paul Johnson (A History of the Jews), this man wanted “to whip up popular enthusiasm for Christianity as the sole valid religion; to demolish the claims of Judaism in a big public spectacle; and then, with church, state and populace behind him, and the Jews demoralized, to effect mass conversion.” Vincent was at Tortosa when Astruc ha-Levi and others were corralled there to be tried.
Let’s go back to the picture.
Down and to the left sits this unsavory group of stereotypes. It’s interesting to note how Polish they look. Would a Spanish Jew wear the wooly hat on that man in the back?
In front of the elder Jews play their children. One seems to be handing a snack to his papa. Is it matzah? Maybe.
The boy on the left is holding a bunch of white blobs. Are they tulip bulbs? No: they’re heads of garlic.
Why garlic? Not to make kosher dills. It’s a sign of the foetor iudaicus.
And what does Papa have in his hand? Well, there’s a pair of spectacles: he’s a scholar. But next to that on his mate’s lap is a volume marked “Biblia Sacra.”. That’s the Bible. In Latin, of course. The preacher is helping him understand it.
Now, what does Papa have under his big right foot? It’s another book. You’ll have to excuse the poor quality of this closeup, but if you look, you’ll see:
On the right are a white stocking and black shoe. On the floor under the shoe is the book. The most prominent Jew in the group is treading on an open volume marked along its left side: TALMVD.
That sort of says it all, doesn’t it?
Of course, all of the folks in the painting are in for a toasting if they don’t convert. The preacher, Vincent, is gesturing theatrically with his right hand and pointing to a picture on the wall: a painting within the painting. (Dominicans really did use large pictures as visual aids to preaching in the days before Powerpoint.)
So what does the picture show?
Christ in red in the clouds above, near a golden cross. His Virgin Mother in blue at his right. And beneath it all, the gaping fiery maw of a monster, the Devil, ready to snack on the naked figures slipping down to his corner of the illustration.
It’s a Last Judgment. Repent or be swallowed.
Still, the Jews come in for more ridicule, more shame and spitting, than anyone else in the crowd. More than the Negress or the red-booted Saracen. Only the Jew is shown desecrating his own theological tradition in favor of the New.
Down the hall there is another painting to answer that question. This one is in a truly sacred place: the sacristy, the place where some of the more than 40 priests who live in our Krakow community can be found in an atmosphere of silent concentration, vested in white albs and silk chasubles, preparing, when the bell rings, to go out to the sanctuary and celebrate Holy Mass.
The ceiling of the Krakow sacristy was painted in the middle of the 18th century. It’s a massive apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas, our brightest theologian, and quotations from his writings are sprinkled around the margins amid trompe-l’oeil pediments and gilded curlicues. God visits Versailles:
In this corner of the ceiling is the citation that explains the images of Jews in my church. It says, in Latin, “Vetustatem Novitas.” It’s just that simple. “The Old is replaced by the New.”
In case you didn’t get that, there’s an illustration.
In the lower part of the picture, resting on some pinkish fluff, we see: the choshen, the priestly breastplate described in Exodus. There’s a sort of cloven mitre, which is a Catholic’s idea of the mitznefet, the turban of the High Priest. There are also a basen or laver and a silver ewer: the battery used by Jewish priests for ritual washing. Oh, and a big knife.
And what is floating, flying, shooting through the space above? It’s the Catholic stuff, of course.
It’s blunt. There’s a sheaf of wheat, clusters of grapes, and a long strip of cloth marked with crosses. That’s the priestly stole, the sign of the Catholic priest’s authority and the dignity of his office. I wear a stole like that every time I say Mass or hear someone’s confession.
The whole bouquet asks a question: who needs the Temple and its sacrifices when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ? Why sheep or goats when there’s the consecrated bread and wine of the Christian eucharist?
Thomas wrote that as part of an anthem called “Lauda Sion” — “Praise, O Zion” — a sequence written for the feast of Corpus Christi, when we celebrate the eucharist in great pomp.
According to this medieval ditty, the sacrificial lambs of Temple days are made redundant by the new sacrifice.
The stanza goes:
“In hac mensa novi Regis
Novum Pascha novae legis
Phase vetus terminat.
Umbram fugat veritas,
Noctem lux eliminat.”
“On this altar of the King
this new Paschal Offering
brings an end to ancient rite.
Shadows flee that truth may stay,
oldness to the new gives way,
and the night’s darkness to the light.”
And this ceiling with its messages has also been restored and re-gilded recently.
Well, folks, what we have here is a problem. And when I say “we” I mean we Catholics.
Because whatever Thomas wrote in the 13th century, whatever Vincent preached in the 15th; whatever curlicue-loving interior decorators doodled on the ceiling at the time of Louis XVI, these images and these messages clash with canonical Catholic teaching.
In its documents and its highest instructions, this is not a church that upholds Supersessionism, the theory that Christians have supplanted Jews as the People of God.
The magisterial 1965 document called Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), a declaration of the Second Vatican Council — than which there is nothing more “official” for Catholics — refers back to some of the most ancient Christian texts, to Saint Paul, when it declares:
“The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: ‘theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh'” (Rom. 9:4-5 cited in NA 4).
And just last December, on the fiftieth anniversary of that document, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released an even stronger instruction, whose title trumpets its thesis: The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable. Therein, we find this:
“The covenant that God has offered Israel is irrevocable. … The New Covenant can never replace the Old… it should be evident for Christians that the covenant that God concluded with Israel has never been revoked but remains valid on the basis of God’s unfailing faithfulness to his people…. In this fundamental sense Israel and the Church remain bound to each other according to the covenant and are interdependent.” (GCGI 27 and 33)
The same thing is taught in the Catechism of the Church of 1993, created under (Saint) John Paul II: “The Old Covenant has never been revoked” (121).
Irrevocable. Catholics of my own, younger, generation have a lot of work to do, theologically, to sweep out the attic corners and let the sunshine in.
Irrevocable. But how we have tried to revoke it!
Irrevocable. As I sit in the stall tonight, hours after sundown, and sing the Polish translation of the psalms sung in the ancient Temple, I will look at that painting, and I will curse it.
I will taunt it with a phrase I learned while looking at the ceiling back in Krakow.
I will look at that mouldering image of benighted Jews and cock-a-hoop Christians and say, right to its face: Vetustaem Novitas.