THERE WAS no mistaking the sense of occasion when Cardinal Sean O'Malley delivered his first address to Boston's Jewish community last week. Hundreds came to hear him, including the heads of the city's leading Jewish organizations, rabbis from every Jewish denomination, and media, both secular and sectarian.
The cardinal didn't say anything controversial or unexpected. No one imagined he would. He expressed strong support for Catholic-Jewish cooperation, emphasized Christianity's Jewish roots, and spoke feelingly about the Christian obligation to fight anti-Semitism. All familiar themes. So why all the attention and interest?
After all, it has been more than 40 years since the Catholic Church adopted "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time"), its landmark declaration condemning anti-Semitism and repudiating the centuries-old teaching that Jews were eternally cursed for the death of Jesus. It has been 20 years since Pope John Paul II embraced Rabbi Elio Toaff in the Great Synagogue of Rome and extolled Jews as the "elder brothers" of Christians. Over the last few decades, Catholic-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation have become such prominent features on the religious landscape that anyone who came of age in the 1970s or later could be forgiven for assuming that Catholic anti-Semitism had always been limited to the crackpots on the fringe.
That's true even in a city like Boston, which in the 1930s and '40s was intensely anti-Semitic. Mayor James Michael Curley called Boston "the strongest Coughlin city in America" -- a reference to Father Charles Coughlin, the Jew-hating Michigan priest who broadcast his poison on the radio and whose anti-Semitic paper, "Social Justice," was hawked on the steps of Boston's Catholic churches.
Today, that entrenched Catholic anti-Semitism has all but vanished, swept away by the revolution that "Nostra Aetate" launched.
In a city where priests once refused to condemn the beating of Jews, Catholic clergy now actively promote interfaith understanding. Boston College is home to the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, which is committed to nurturing relationships between Christians and Jews that are based "not merely on toleration but on full respect and mutual enrichment." On the website of the Boston Archdiocese is a wealth of material on Catholic-Jewish relations; one recommended resource is an online study guide to "Nostra Aetate" prepared by the Anti-Defamation League -- a Jewish organization with which the archdiocese has an active partnership.
The change in the church's attitude toward Jews has been extraordinary, and O'Malley made a point of underscoring its permanence. "It is for us Catholics a part of our response to God," he said. "Hence there can never be a question of retreating from 'Nostra Aetate.' "
But not everyone has gotten that message.
He told a story from his days as a young priest working with immigrants in Washington, D.C., when some members of the Anti-Defamation League came to see him about anti-Semitism in the Hispanic community. Impossible, O'Malley told them. These immigrants came from remote villages in El Salvador and most of them had never met a Jew. "I assured the men that they were barking up the wrong tree, and sent them off with a don't-call-me-I'll-call-you."
A few days later, at a meeting with parishioners to make plans for Holy Week, O'Malley was dumbfounded when one man proposed to celebrate Holy Saturday with "la quema del judio" -- the burning of the Jew. "Although Spanish is almost my first language," he recalled the other night, "I had him repeat the phrase two or three times, such was my disbelief and horror." Among some Central American Catholics, it turned out, there was a custom of hanging an effigy of Judas and blowing it up with fireworks: the burning of the Jew.
O'Malley vetoed the proposal. Then he called the ADL and asked for help in educating his parishioners. The result was a Passover seder conducted in Spanish on Holy Thursday following the Mass of the Lord's Supper.
"The whole community was fascinated to see the connection between the seder meal and the Eucharist," O'Malley said. "After that, no one ever asked again to burn any Jews."
Remarkable as the transformation of recent decades has been, it will take more time than that to scrub away the stain left by the 1,900 years that preceded them. Against the long sweep of Christian history, and the even longer sweep of Jewish history, the 40 years since "Nostra Aetate" have been but a brief, blessed moment. It is too soon to take it all for granted. Too soon to be nonchalant about the teaching of brotherhood that replaced the teaching of contempt. That is why Cardinal O'Malley's speech commanded such interest. And why the finest thing about it was that none of it came as a surprise.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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