Now that Pope Francis’ trip to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority has been completed and the pundits have all spoken about the trip’s successes and failures I want remind us all of something that happened sixty six years ago that should be the next step for Pope Francis.
Sixty six years ago in 1948 French historian, educator and warrior against Antisemitism, Jules Isaac, published his critical work, Jesus and Israel. This monumental work outlined the aspects of Christian dogma at the heart Christian religious Antisemitism embedded in the Good Friday prayer portraying Jews as “perfidious”. The book also focused on a host of other aspects of Christianity which Isaac noted were not only untrue but was also the basis of anti-Jewish hate which led to the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s. This work and an ongoing dialogue with Pope John the XXIII, now a saint, ultimately led directly to sections on reconciling Jews and Catholics in the pioneering document, Nostra Aetate, and the changes in Catholic liturgy and educational practice in Vatican II.
Isaac’s wrote this monumental book during the war years when he was in hiding from the Nazis. Isaac wrote while his wife and daughter were murdered in Auschwitz. The message in Jesus and Israel was taken to heart by Cardinal Roncalli, the future Pope John the XXIII, because it called on the Church to put aside the falsehoods and misrepresentations of the Jews and to restart a more positive and fulfilling relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. The work of John the XXIII was continued by Pope John Paul and now by Pope Francis.
When Pope Francis arrived in the Holy land, he discussed with Israeli, Jordanians and Palestinians issues critical in getting Jews, Christians and Muslims to better understand each other. He even invited Peres and Abbas to the Vatican to pray with him for peace. Yet even more important to the Pope, the Vatican and Christianity in general is the fact that Christians today in the Middle East have gone from 20% of the population to 2%. The only place where Christians are growing, thriving and even expanding is in Israel where they have complete freedom. Christianity is under threat of completely disappearing from the Middle East except for Israel in the next few decades unless something is done. So what I am going to recommend is not only important for Jews but equally important for Christians as well as moderate Muslims.
What needs to be done is not easily done. It needs to be more than just prayers with Abbas and Peres. The Middle East needs an equivalent to Jules Isaac’s Jesus and Israel, Nostra Aetate and Vatican II. Pope Francis is in fact the perfect person to speak to the Islamic world to openly discuss those aspects of Islam which are based on falsehoods and misrepresentations of both Jews and Christians; of both Judaism and Christianity to help the Islamic world to join Judaism and Christianity in a pioneering restart. When Islam confronts it’s bag and baggage of anti-Jewish and anti-Christian dogma as both the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations have done with Judaism then true peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians might take place.
There is no equivalent Pope in Judaism and Islam but with Pope Francis there is a charismatic, thoughtful and compassionate man at the head of the Church. He has the gravitas to put together a Council of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to begin the discussions of how these three religions, who share a monotheistic vision, might find a way to put aside the falsehoods and misrepresentations embedded in all of their religious dogma, doctrine and documents to find a way to justify and support peace between Israel and the Arab world and secure a continuing place for Christians and Jews in the Middle East. If religion can be removed as a factor in the Middle East then there may be a slim chance that Israel and the Arabs can find a path toward resolving the decades old conflict.
Pope Francis may be the only person capable acting as the catalyst for this kind of pioneering, life changing initiative. We can only pray for his success and hope for bold steps in the direction of achieving a positive restart for the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.