A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of participating in the Annual Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Observance at Temple Shalom in Middleton, Rhode Island. I had been invited to the service by Rabbi Marc Jagolinzer of Temple Shalom.
Rabbi Jagolinzer is a prominent religious leader in Rhode Island, a truly good and gentle man, and for many years now a faithful friend of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Providence.
As I explained during my brief remarks at the Memorial Observance, my participation had several purposes. I was there to join the members of the community in prayerfully remembering the 6 million victims of the Shoah; to join the citizens of the world in asking God’s forgiveness for allowing the Holocaust to happen; and to affirm our commitment that such an atrocity will never again occur within the human family.
The act of remembering is an important part of our resolution to prevent future Holocausts. In one of the prayers of the service that evening we repeated the refrain, “As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.” Or, as Pope Benedict said in a recent speech to representatives of the American Jewish community: “The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity. It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.”
And that brings me to another important purpose of my visit to the Temple, to recognize and strengthen the friendship of the Jewish and Catholic communities in our state. I began by acknowledging that on the international level there are occasional misunderstandings and tensions between our two communities.
For example, not too long ago a well-intentioned, but misunderstood action of Pope Benedict caused considerable disappointment, confusion and even anger in the worldwide Jewish community. In what was intended to be an internal disciplinary matter in the Church, the Pope lifted the excommunication of several dissident bishops, including the now infamous Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson. In a subsequent letter to the world’s bishops about the affair, the Pope described it as “an unforeseen mishap.” He wrote that “the discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops suddenly appeared as something completely different – as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews,” a consequence the Pope “deeply deplored.”
While the initial firestorm over this particular matter has subsided, the concern always is that an earthquake overseas can cause a tsunami here. Fortunately, our interfaith friendships in Rhode Island are strong. Here we pray together, work together and discuss areas of mutual concern. It’s an achievement of which we can be confident and proud.
But there’s still more work to be done. All members of the Catholic Church should share the commitment to understand, support and love our Jewish brothers and sisters. The Vatican Council was a modern turning point in this regard and spoke of “the common spiritual heritage” of Christians and Jews, encouraging us to develop “further mutual understanding and appreciation” by means of intellectual enquires and friendly discussion. (Nostra Aetate, #4)
Building on that foundation, last year during his trip to the United States, Pope Benedict extended his “special greetings of peace to the Jewish community in the United States and throughout the world.” He reaffirmed his commitment to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue of the past 40 years “that has fundamentally changed our relationship for the better.”
Sometimes, however, official Church teachings aren’t perfectly assimilated in the daily lives of individuals. Sadly, remnants of anti-Semitism continue to exist in society and even, in members of the Church. While the prejudices usually simmer just below the surface of common decency, international and national events, and sometimes personal experiences, give license for hateful expressions to break through the surface rather quickly. It’s hard to believe that such ignorance remains in our world today, a world that rightly repudiates unjust bigotry and discrimination against groups of people. As I’ve written previously, “Prejudice against the Jews is ignorant and evil, contrary to the law of love and the Gospel of Christ. Any remnant if it in society or the Church needs to be eradicated.” (The Providence Visitor, April 26, 2007)
Next week, Pope Benedict will visit the Holy Land. His journey promises to be an historic journey, a pilgrimage he undertakes to promote understanding, reconciliation and peace in a troubled land. The world will be watching. And we should be praying that his apostolic journey will be safe and successful.
And while our Holy Father represents the Church in the Holy Land, let us use the occasion to reaffirm our friendship with our Jewish brothers and sisters here at home. Though we acknowledge our corporate and individual failures of the past, we believe that God calls us to a better future. As Pope Benedict has said, “we must not allow past difficulties to hold us back from extending to one another the hand of friendship.” (Speech to Representatives of the American Jewish Community.)