Marking Fifty Years Of Nostra Aetate

Barely two weeks after attending Pope Francis’ Interfaith Service at Ground Zero, I had another, even more surreal experience last night involving the Catholic Church.

The year 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, a remarkable document produced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, during the papacy of Pope John XXIII. In a relatively few brief words, Nostra Aetate addressed– and began to heal– the legacy of centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism, and a larger process of Catholic reconciliation with Judaism. The traditional language of the Good Friday liturgy that had explicitly blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus was removed, along with the condemnation and rejection of Judaism that went with it. Nostra Aetate proclaimed clearly and unambivalently that, while some Jews had sought the crucifixion of Jesus, he endured his death and “passion” of his own free will, and neither ancient nor modern Jews bore collective responsibility for his death. Most importantly, the Catholic Church condemned anti-Semitism in all of its forms.

This was nothing less than a revolutionary change for the Church. To this day, Pope John XXIII is widely admired and respected within the Jewish world for changing the course of Church, and Jewish, history.

The fact that the “Mother Church” had dramatically and officially changed its teachings about Jews and Judaism did not, however, mean that those changes were necessarily implemented on the local level in churches around the world. We Jews know from our own historical experience that the de jure emancipation of European Jewry did not immediately change the de facto reality on the ground. It took years, and in some places, even hundreds of years later, it’s still in process. The same was true with the Church. Centuries of indoctrination with officially sanctioned anti-Semitism made many Catholics both young and old anti-Semitic virtually from birth. It’s hard, if not impossible, to change attitudes so deeply ingrained.

Shortly after the Pope’s visit, I was invited by the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens to sit on a panel of Jewish respondents at the Diocese’s “Clergy Convocation” marking this anniversary. Virtually every priest, bishop, and deacon of the Catholic Church in Brooklyn and Queens, well over two hundred people, were to be in attendance, and the keynote presentation was to be delivered by Monsignor Edward McManus, an eminent Catholic theologian and expert on Nostra Aetate.

I of course accepted the invitation, and thought long and hard about what to say. I share my brief presentation with you, in the hope that many of you will both feel as if your own experiences through the years have been acknowledged, and also that the Catholic Church at least here in Brooklyn and Queens, is trying hard to make things better…

“Good evening.

May I begin by saying how very honored I am to be participating in this special program, and how pleased I am that it is taking place.

As a rabbi who has served the same congregation in Queens for the past thirty-four years, I can attest to the fact that the level of both communication and respect between the Diocese of Brooklyn of Queens and the local Jewish community is qualitatively rich, and my rabbinate, along with that of others. Is surely the better for it. I was privileged, some years ago, to welcome Bishop Demarzio and Monsignor Massie to my family’s Passover Seder, and while I think it is possible that the Bishop is still recovering from the length of the seder and the heaviness of the meal that came with it, my family certainly remembers it as an evening of tremendous significance for our family. I certainly do.

For me personally, the only way that I can look forward from this auspicious anniversary is to look backwards, to my years as a young child in the predominantly Catholic city of Bayonne, New Jersey. I am 62 years old, and was starting high school in 1965, the year that Nostra Aetate was promulgated by the Second Vatican Council under the leadership of the late Pope John the 23rd.

Though I lived in Bayonne, I attended a Jewish parochial high school in Jersey City, and took a public bus there and back every day. The Catholic presence in my little piece of the world was powerful. Along with a number of smaller Catholic churches, there was a magnificent cathedral-style church in Bayonne, and two Catholic schools in Jersey City that were teeming with students. I still remember their names, St. Dominic, and St. Aloysius.

To be painfully honest, I tried to time my afternoon commutes so that they didn’t coincide with dismissal at the Catholic Schools. I couldn’t avoid the mornings, but if I was artful, I could dodge the afternoon times. I was a relatively scrawny little kid, wearing a kippah, and I was the easiest target in the world for what was thankfully mostly verbal abuse, the type of which you can imagine. It was more than an occasional occurrence, and it was quite unpleasant.

I remember wondering to myself at the time what these kids were hearing in their homes and churches that made this kind of behavior possible. To be completely honest, in my very parochial Jewish world, we were taught nothing at all about Christianity, except that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition had been particularly tragic for the Jewish communities of Spain and Western Europe. We were instructed that we were not allowed to even enter a church, and the reality is that many Jews in the Orthodox community still observe that prohibition. To sum it up, there was an abundance of ignorance on all sides.

The result of all of this was not only that my commute to and from high school was less than pleasant, but also that I had no knowledge base within which to reframe, if you will, what I was experiencing. The Church was a mystery to me, Catholicism in particular and Christianity as a whole was a mystery to me, my own religious education did little to enlighten me, and basically, it all combined to create a pretty fearful Jew. It is against all odds that I am here with all of you this evening, talking about the significance of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

I’m proud to say that I’ve come a long way since then. Along with my Catholic and Protestant colleagues in Forest Hills, I am actively involved in our interfaith efforts to create a more seamless and cohesive spiritual community in our part of Queens. I had the wonderful opportunity to be with the Pope at the recent interfaith service at Ground Zero during his visit to New York, and found it spiritually rich and deeply meaningful. To insure that my children did not grow up with the same experience and fears that I did, I have brought them to church services at which I have spoken, and I still remember the looks on my older children’s faces when, as youngsters, I brought them to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to experience that sense of spiritual grandeur that you get when you walk into such an overpowering structure- eyes and mouths wide open …

But the real significance of this evening is not about my personal growth. It is, rather, about the long-ranging impact that Nostra Aetate has had, undeniably for the better, in creating a healthier and more honest religious climate between the Catholic and Jewish communities. We are light years from where we were when I was a young child, and though we still have a ways to go, it is heartening to see that the courageous step forward that was initiated by Pope John the XXIII has borne such sweet fruit.

One note that might point us towards the future …

For all that the very fact of our being here attests to the vast improvement in the relationship between our organized religious communities, the reality is that, from where I sit, the real-time members of our religious communities still live largely in silos. On a day to day level, we may interact at work, or in certain social settings, but there remains, to my eye, at least, a careful distance between us born out of the reticence of both communities to engage.

Old habits die hard. On matters far less consequential, the Jewish community tends to be clannish and extremely tribal, and long-nursed grievances are hard to set aside. Likewise, attitudes among laypeople in the Catholic world that were seeded and nurtured in youth are not so easily set aside.

There remains much work to be done to create genuine fellowship among our communities. May we all be privileged to move forward, together, to fully realize the potential of Nostra Aetate.

Thank you very much."

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.