Two thousand years ago, dramatic events in the history of the world took place when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem. People had come to celebrate the feast of the Passover and to thank Yahweh for their safe deliverance from the slavery of Egypt. They were his chosen people who had been led to the promised land. On hearing Jesus was coming they brought branches of palm trees to greet him, saying “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”
Caiaphas, the high priest and other Jewish elders were alarmed. Roman soldiers were out in full force. Additional troops were always called up during holy days in the event there would be an uprising. Even though they were crushed under the conqueror`s heel, Jews still had some autonomy and were free to worship Yahweh and be governed by their laws provided they did not conflict with Rome. The Jewish elders feared even that would be taken away because of this man whom the people hailed as a King. The Romans tolerated no threat to their power even if that threat came from a so-called King who had no legions to command and who came riding on a donkey.
For centuries, God`s chosen people had been patiently waiting for the promised redeemer with a fervor beyond understanding. Every newly wed couple believed, as they entered the bridal chamber, they would be the ones to bring forth the promised Messiah. He would avenge and free his people from their oppressors with hordes of sword-bearing angels in fiery chariots. As Christ rode through the crowds it was clear so many believed in him that the elders of the temple felt compelled to plot his death.They were certain he would lead the people astray and Caiaphas proposed that it was better for one man to die than have the whole Jewish nation suffer.
There were, of course, many who were deeply disappointed with this man. Instead of calling on legions of angels to strike down the Romans, Christ spoke of the power of love and forgiveness. He worked many miracles. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead and preached a kingdom of love and non-violence.
When Christ was eventually betrayed by Judas, he was brought before the Sanhedrin. The trial began by calling witnesses who testified the man had done great harm to the minds and hearts of the people and was instigating a revolt against the Romans. On cross examinations, their statements had no valid grounds. Others testified they heard this man proclaim he was the one sent by Yahweh. Christ remained silent. Still, Caiaphas and the elders were eager to convict him because of the perceived peril that this man had placed the Jewish people in.
Finally, in desperation, the wily Caiaphas asked Christ if he were truly the Son of God. Secretly, he gloated because he knew fully well he had Jesus cornered. To admit he was not the Messiah would mean he was a fraud and had lied to his followers. To answer in the affirmative, would bring the serious charge of blasphemy. For what seemed an eternity,Jesus answered he was indeed the Son of Man. Caiaphas was stunned. He could hardly believe his ears. When all else seemed to have failed, Christ had condemned himself.
The crime of blasphemy was admitted in the presence of the judges and he was sentenced to death. However the Jews were not allowed to put anyone to death so they brought Jesus before Pilate who opened the trial by asking what were the charges against the prisoner. He was told he was inciting the nation to revolt. He opposed the collection of taxes to Caesar and also claimed he was a king. Pilate was aghast. He realized the words, “revolt”, ” taxes” and “Caesar” meant a serious crime against Rome. Pilate realized immediately that the crafty,Jewish elders had solved an internal problem and handed him a prisoner charged with the high crime of treason against the Roman Empire.
Pilate had Jesus brought in and asked if him if was truly a king. Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world. Pilate was annoyed at this vague answer and once more asked Jesus if he were a king . Jesus answered in the affirmative and told Pilate that was the reason he was born and for that very reason he had come into the world.
Pilate then brought Jesus out and asked the crowd if they wanted him to have their king crucified. They answered they had no king but Caesar. Pilate knew immediately that was a naked threat to him. He had no choice but to hand Jesus over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. At his crucifixion, an inscription was placed above his head that read: “Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.” It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek so that all people would know that was his crime. When Christ was taken down from the cross, his crucifixion and death was not considered to be of any great importance.
Even though Christ triumphantly rose from the dead and Christians believe his death was offered to God as the supreme sacrifice for all sins, the Catholic church, for centuries, promoted the view that the Jews were were responsible for the death of Christ, appealing to Scripture for the justification of the persecution and hatred toward Jews.
The Lateran Council of 1215 A.D. dealt specifically with the Jews: Christians princes must watch lest Jews exact too high interest of Christians debtors; baptized Jews may not observe Jewish customs; Jews may not appear in public during Easter week; Jews must give tithes on their houses and other property to the Church and pay a yearly tax at Easter; no Christian prince may give an office to a Jew under pain of excommunication; Jews must wear a distinctive dress from their twelfth year to distinguish them from Christians.
“Perfidious Jews“ was the offensive expression used by Catholics in the Good Friday liturgy when they prayed for the unbelieving Jews and that God would withdraw the veil from their hearts and be brought out of their darkness.
Another painful chapter which involved the sons of the Church is the acquiescence given to intolerance and the use of violence when Crusaders slaughtered Jews on their way to the Holy Land. Many a crusader wondered why he had to travel thousands of miles to fight the infidels when the Christ killers were right there.
Catholic clergy had been persistently calling for the conversion and destruction of Judaism. They believed the Second Coming of Christ will occur only when the Jews accepted Christianity. Religion was a matter of faith, not race and since doctrine held that baptism altered the soul, the “stain“ of Judaism was instantly blotted out.
Taking the cue from their spirited fore bearers in Spain that only Christians could live in Spain, the Nazis decided only Aryans could live In Europe and committed the most unspeakable atrocities against mankind. The Holocaust was also a religious matter for they were exterminated because they were Jews.
In a recent speech to the World Zionist Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referred to the latest violence where Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. His anger and frastrations gave way to an irrational outburst claiming that Hitler did not want to exterminate the Jews at that time, he merely wanted to expel the Jews. He made reference to the Mufti of Jerusalem who went to Hitler and said that if he expelled them they would all come to Palestine. Hitler then wondered what he should do with them. The answer was prompt and precise: ‘Burn them!’ Netanyahu continued saying that al-Husseni had a central role in fomenting the final solution.
The facts are that Grand Mufti did meet with Hitler in November 1941, long after the extermination of Jews had begun. The massacre at Babi Yar, not far from Kiev, took place a couple of months earlier where some 32,000 Jews were murdered in two days.The killing machine would soon reach its full Nazi efficiency and frenzy — thanks mainly to the willing executioners from Christian Europe who claimed to be followers of Christ.
The extermination of the Jews (the Shoah) during World War II, the unspeakable atrocities committed against them and the abominable crimes that subjected the Jewish people to a terrible ordeal that threatened their very existence in Europe, caused the Catholic Church to rethink its relationship with the Jewish people. To its credit, Vatican II was convened and in October 1965, the historic Nostra Aetate, the declaration concerning non-Christian religions, especially Judaism was passed by the Council. It declared that Jews are not to be regarded as repudiated or cursed by God. It put an end to the idea held by Christians throughout the centuries that the Jews were a “deicide“ people. It eliminated that despicable Good Friday liturgy where the faithful prayed for the faithless Jews. It clearly emphasized that whatever happened on the day of Christ`s passion cannot be blamed upon the Jews then living , nor upon the Jews of today. It also deplored the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again in Europe and other parts of the world. Fortunately, it was Pope John Paul II who spearheaded the drive for an examination of conscience. In 1995 in his message marking the 50th. anniversary of World War II, he stated that Christians of Europe need to ask forgiveness. He later called for an epochal mea culpa that would free the Church form the `burden of the dead` and prevent it from remaining a prisoner of its past.
What is generally unknown or forgotten is the incredible plan of Luciani, better known as POPE JOHN PAUL I. Briefly, this is what he said of the Jews:
“If Christ, the Lord gives me life; if I have the strength, enlightenment and support, I plan to call together, a representation of bishops from all over the world for an act of repentance, humility, reparation, peace and love of the universal Church, to be repeated each year by the Pope and bishops of the local churches every Good Friday. We Christians have sinned against the Jews, our brothers in God and Abraham; we have ignored and maligned them for centuries. It took the horrors of the extermination camps to awaken the conscience of humanity and of Christians in regard to the Jews who were slaughtered for their religion. Let us not forget that the two words “Good Friday“ still resound in the ears of Jews all over the world as a sad and tragic remembrance of the events that took place on that day. It should be a day of peace and remembrance and brotherhood, of repentance and silence on which all men are called to acknowledge the infinite mercy of God.“
Unfortunately, Luciani was Pope for only thirty-three days.
The Church should accept the criticism that surrounds it with humility, reflection and even with gratitude. The Vatican does not need to defend itself by being deaf to the suggestions that come from honest voices. It is clear that an explicit request for forgiveness has not yet been made even though fifty years have passed since the admission of guilt by the Second Vatican Council.
With the explosive and dangerous situation in the Middle East, it is apparent that we are slowly but surely sliding toward Armageddon. It is time to carry out the plan of Pope John Paul I. It would definitely ease tensions and pave the way for meaningful dialogues. We pray Pope Francis would now have the wisdom and courage to do this.
If not now, then when?