‘Nostra Aetate’ celebrated for reviving Jewish-Christian dialogue

| December 3, 2015 | 0 Comments
Nostra Aetate

Father Erich Rutten, left, chairman of the archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, and Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, shake hands during a Dec. 2 event in Minneapolis commemorating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In 1982, Rabbi Adam Spilker was a kid visiting Paris when he first saw the Notre Dame Cathedral. He remembers gazing at two allegorical figures flanking the main entrance: “Synagoga” and “Ecclesia” —  the Synagogue and the Church.

Synagoga representing the Jews is a female figure that is bent, with a broken staff symbolic of a broken covenant. In contrast is Ecclesia, also a female figure, representing Christianity that is upright and triumphant,” Spilker explained Dec. 2 before a crowd of 300 in Minneapolis.

When he saw the ubiquitous medieval motif, however, he understood the figures as a vestige of history, not representative of the “harmony between Catholics and Jews” in which he was growing up. Spilker, rabbi of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, credits the shift to “Nostra Aetate,” a Vatican II document that laid a foundation for a positive relationship between the Church with non-Christian religions.

That relationship was recently made visible, Spilker noted, with a newly commissioned statue — blessed by Pope Francis — on the campus of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia showing Synagoga and Ecclesia sitting side-by-side as if in a conversation, with Synagoga unrolling a scroll and Ecclesia holding an open book. It was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the milestone that also occasioned the banquet where Spilker spoke Wednesday night.

“Without addressing its many dimensions and manifold perceptions, I stand here tonight to praise the Catholic Church for a decision in 1965 that ushered in a remarkable new era for the Jewish people,” he said. “For Jews used to taunts of being called ‘Christ-killers,’ the power of this Vatican statement was breathtaking.”

Held at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, the event commemorating “Nostra Aetate” was hosted by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with the state’s other dioceses, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association and the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, a collaborate enterprise of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and St. John’s University in Collegeville.

The evening’s Catholic speakers were Father Erich Rutten, chairman of the archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs; Father Theodore Campbell, a retired priest and former pastor of Good Shepherd in Golden Valley, whose parish school has a longtime relationship with a nearby Jewish day school; and Archbishop Bernard Hebda, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator.

Father Rutten said that Vatican II’s purpose “was to find ways to express the Catholic-Christian faith in new ways in the modern world, and to engage the world.”

Meaning “in our time,” “Nostra Aetate” was one of 16 documents promulgated from the council. Father Rutten called it “groundbreaking” and “game-changing.”

“It was immediately recognized as a powerful shift, and it’s led to renewed dialogue and renewed relations among all faiths” including in Minnesota, he said.

Keynote speaker Amy-Jill Levine employed humor to relay a serious and formative incident, underscoring the way “Nostra Aetate” changed the Catholic understanding of the Jews.

She described being told as a 7-year-old by a Catholic girl on the bus, “You killed our Lord.”

“I recall replying with no small degree of indignation, ‘No I did not,’” Levine said. “And this little girl said, ‘Yes you did. Our priest said so.’”

The event predated “Nostra Aetate,” she said, but it was also her first experience with Jewish-Catholic relations. It was the only anti-Semitic comment she heard as a child.

“Nostra Aetate states: “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

“True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today,” it continues. “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Levine was curious about where the origins of the idea that Jews killed the Christians’ God and was eager to stop it, so she decided to attend catechism classes with her friends.

“The good sisters who taught me my catechism never said a word that struck me as anti-Jew,” she said. “What happened instead was I fell in love with the stories of the New Testament, because they’re beautiful stories, and they’re also very Jewish stories.”

Now she is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, and a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

In her remarks, Levine praised Pope John XIII, who died before the promulgation of “Nostra Aetate,” but who — as a nuncio to Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria — helped to save Jews during World War II and who, as pope, removed the descriptor “perfidious” from Good Friday’s prayers for the Jews, and introduced himself to a group of Jews as “Joseph, your brother.”

She gave an overview of successes as well as continued challenges in Jewish-Catholic dialogue. She also called for Christians and Jews to better understand each other’s Scriptures and traditions, similarities and differences, and she challenged bishops to arrange programs on preventing anti-Jewish teaching within Catholic institutions and catechism programs. She also asked Jewish leaders to do the same for Christian teaching in their institutions.

“‘Nostra Aetate’ began the change,” she said. “The Vatican has continued — as have numerous Protestant denominations — in its wake. The Jewish community has made numerous efforts to respond to those initiatives.”

She added: “The only reason I can do what I do is because of ‘Nostra Aetate’ and the grace the Church showed the Jewish community. The only reason that I’m here is that people here in this city recognize the importance of what we hold in common, as well as what makes us distinct.”

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