Fifteenth Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

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Card Johannes Willebrands, President Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity

Italia       25/10/1980

On October 25 1980 SIDIC commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the promulgation of the declaration "Nostra Aetate" by the Second Vatican Council. The following is the address of Cardinal Willebrands on that occasion.

The celebration of an anniversary, of a religious event, does not only mean commemoration in the ordinary and usual sense of that word. We are gathered here this evening, thanks to an invitation from SIDIC in Rome, for the fifteenth anniversary of the solemn promulgation by Vatican Council II of the Declaration Nostra Aetate on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The section speaking of relations with Judaism is certainly the most developed and the richest in content, standing out in the general text of the Declaration because of its theological importance. We will not here recall it to mind simply as a historical occurrence and so only reaffirm its having had existence at a moment in the past. In its true meaning, to commemorate goes much further than that. According to the theological and liturgical sense of anamnesis, it causes the fact to which the commemoration refers to live again in the present, and projects its existence into the future. The event thus takes on fresh dimensions in every commemoration and goes on living in the present; it is enriched by the experience gained over the years since its beginning, and reveals hidden but valid potentialities for the future. So memory is not bound to the past, but should inform the present. and commit the future.

Link between Text and Life

How does the declaration Nostra Aetate present itself to us with its paragraph four when seen in this light, fifteen years after it was promulgated? First of all we have to say that it does not come to us as a bare text, however valid and significant it may be, but still just one of many such published by ecclesiastical organs in recent or past times. A Council text is never simply a bare text to Catholic Christians (nor, for that matter, to other Christians). In a certain way it is a work of the Holy Spirit. It therefore possesses a potentiality of its own which enables it to live and act within the Church, There is no need even for it to be a `perfect' text. There are very few perfect texts in the history of the Church. But it is precisely that inherent potentiality that enables comparison between text and life, constantly deeper understanding of it and the bringing of new historical situations to bear upon it, helping us to read the texts that we are commemorating in a fresh way, yet always in continuity with their fundamental meaning.

How could we fail to recall at this moment the personality of him whom I venerated and loved as master and father — Cardinal Bea? He convinced the Council Fathers, and through them the whole Church, of the spiritual relationships that link Christians and Jews. Cardinal Bea spoke with patience and wisdom, but also with love rooted in faith and ripened by biblical research into the relations between Jews and Christians. He taught and inspired fresh and deeper understanding of the identity and religious truth of the Jewish people.

The fourth paragraph of Nostra Aetate thus presents itself to us, as we commemorate it today, as having been singularly enriched by the experience of the intervening years. We read it today in the light of Guidelines and Suggestions for its implementation, published in 1975. That text was deliberately rendered simple and generic: it is a texte cadre as they say in French, a framework. It suggests in fact to Catholics ways and means of applying Nostra Aetate to the various contexts of the Church's pastoral life: liturgy, education, action. The Council text enters in this fashion into the concrete reality of the cells through which the Church's life runs. The text certainly comes out looking renewed and up to date, concerned with the present.

Statements after Nostra Aetate

The same may and ought to be said of comments and references to our text coming from Popes and various Episcopates over the years. The quickens and gives text itself inspires and ves the main line; but their comments and references exert influence in their turn upon the text and allow us to undertake a `re-examination' of it. This is not the place for listing all those documents: they have been brought together into two or three important collections. Yet it is always useful to recall some of them, precisely because of their value as interpretations and topical applications of Nostra Aetate. We would recall two among Papal texts in this field: Paul VI's discourse to participants in the fifth meeting of the International Liaison Committee between the Catholic Church and Judaism, January 10 1975, and John Paul il's speech to representatives of World Jewry on March 12 last year. I must add the Holy Father's speeches to Jewish communities in various countries that he has recently visited: Mexico, the United States. France, Brazil. Among texts issued by Episcopal conferences, we all know those of the Bishops of the United States, the French Episcopate, the German Episcopate, the Conference of Latin American Episcopates at Puebla in Mexico, the synods of the Archdiocese of Santiago, Chile, and so on.

But it is not only a matter of texts. Life itself, that is. the progress of the dialogue with Judaism which was called for by the Council, sets the texts within the context of lived reality. This context absolutely cannot be disregarded in a commemoration likes ours today. It is not possible, however, to report on everything that has happened in this field since the dialogue with Judaism is developing more or less everywhere at all levels. We would just now mention the series of annual meetings of what is called the International Liaison Committee between the Holy See and World Jewry. These began in 1971, the latest having been held at Regensburg in Bavaria in October last. Other gatherings of the same Committee have been held at Rome and Jerusalem (19781 and Toledo -Madrid /19784 all places of significance for our common history in both its bright and sad aspects. There should be no need to say that these meetings are certainly not mere academic exercises, purely theoretical affairs. On the contrary, there is enquiry into questions pertaining to each side's identity, questions that have divided us for almost two thousand years. There is, for example, the very complex question of the Church's universal mission and the distinction between that mission and so called proselytism which does not respect human dignity and liberty. A certain amount of time is always devoted at such meetings to communication effected by both sides and problems and difficulties as still exist and reappear in our relationships. It is still right, however, to emphasize once again that such encounters on the international level are but one aspect or element, although the most evident one, of a broad texture of gatherings, meetings, dialogues and interchanges of all kinds. They occur at all levels and by now it is impossible to keep track of them all, Thanks to SIDIC, which is our host this evening, and thanks to other initiatives, the two communities meet in Rome as well; they talk and are beginning a dialogue. This dialogue has its special features and demands which, as we said, will not fail to be reflected upon those other texts.

We cannot be totally unaware of the fact that Jews in Italy, particularly those in Rome, are those who always were and are closest to the Apostolic See. This undoubtedly sets up a special relationship.

Life of Dialogue

This life is developing and spreading like a river, like the one mentioned towards the end of the Book of Ezechiel f cf. Ez. 47: 1 - 12). restoring and cleansing the land that it traverses. It is in this context that certain acts take on a quite particular value with regard to our commemoration. Let us think for a moment here of certain acts on the Catholic side, acts of the Holy See itself. The Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism was set up through the work of Paul VI on a date that almost coincided with the ninth anniversary of Nostra Aetate (October 22 1974), That act certainly had more than practical relevance only: it had theological and pastoral relevance above all, and we have not yet exhausted all its possible consequences. Acts of that kind have come from the Jewish side also. Catholics will never be able to forget the feelings of fraternity and understanding participation that were shown on the Jewish side in the autumn of 1978 on the occasion of the deaths and elections of two Popes in the brief period of two months. Written testimonies of such fraternity and participation in sorrow fill numerous pages of the Acta Aposto/icae Sedis, the official organ of the Holy See, and of our own Information Service. But what was expressed in writing was only a reflection of that fraternal and heartfelt attitude. It in its turn marks out a precedent, and shows a path to be followed by Catholics. It is impossible to trace out the course taken, as we remarked, by such acts on both sides.

If then we consider the text of paragraph four of Nostra Aetate in this context, what elements appear as being most important, most topical, most urgent for greater reflection and more decisive application? In the brief time here available I would propose some elements which spring to my mind.

First of all, fresh light is shed upon the initial statement in paragraph four which says that the Church searches into her own mystery and so discovers the link uniting it with the people born of Abraham. This means that relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism are not as it were extrinsic ones, overlaying the reality of the Church herself, but on the contrary they flow from the consciousness that the Church has of herself. In fact she has her roots in Judaism, not only in that of the Old Testament, but also in that which is intertestamentary, from which matrix rabbinical Judaism also comes. Contemporary Judaism, here worthily represented, declares itself the heir of the latter. Well, this theological foundation of dialogue and relationships has been brought to light more clearly by the texts and deeds of the last fifteen years on one and the other side. To give one example, I would refer to the expression adopted by the Holy Father John Paul II in his speech of March 12 1979 to representatives of the Jewish communities. The Pope said that the two religions are linked at the very level of their own religious identities. This is an affirmation of prime importance and it will need going into more deeply. From the pastoral point of view, that is from the point of view of the Catholic Church's daily ministry, this means that having a relationship with Judaism and with Jews is almost an imperative of her distinctive reality.

Spiritually We are All Semites

We have likewise seen more clearly than ever how every form of antisemitism, of discrimination, whether violent or attenuated, is absolutely incompatible with the requirements of the Christian faith and ethic. We might say that, for a Christian, being antisemitic a contradictio in adiecto, as the scholastic formula has it. This expression might be rendered as follows: it is at the same time a negation of what it affirms.

It may happen that the religious element sharpens opposed feelings in a dispute of any kind involving Christians and Jews, whereas it ought to facilitate understanding and rapprochement on the human level.

We would recall here that almost fifty years ago, on September 6 1938, Pius XI told a group of Belgian pilgrims that we Christians are spiritually Semites. That statement of principle has never lapsed. Indeed, the experience of this period of fifteen years has served to make it more valid and true. Paradoxically, attempts at ideological justification of antisemitism only set that declaration of the Pope in even brighter light. For one thing, they call forth a reaction on the part of Church leaders, as we saw on the occasion of the recent occurrences in Paris. I would here once more decidedly condemn those occurrences. But it is not a question of reactions only. There is also question of a patient labor of formation and education. This begins with catechesis, continues with religious instruction and culminates in the sermon of the Sunday liturgical celebration. The way to be covered is long and difficult, prejudices are met with on it, but also new and old theological and exegetical problems that are not always easy to resolve. We know that Jewish communities in many parts of the world try to find ways of presenting Christianity in a more objective light, one corresponding to the deep reality of the faith. We appreciate such efforts, we follow their development with interest, and we rejoice greatly at results already achieved.

Learn How Jews Define Themselves

Recent years have let us rediscover in an even livelier fashion the importance for the Jewish consciousness of certain elements or facts that tend to define it according to its proper identity. Among these a very special value is given to the monstrous experience of persecution and extermination during the Nazi period which is usually called The Holocaust.

Contemporary Judaism defines itself in some way on the basis of that experience. It tries to see in it the certainly psychological but also theological reason for its vital need for security and a guarantee of being able to subsist. This explains, at least in part, the constant association of religious and political factors (the latter at national and state levels) which is so characteristic of present day Judaism.

For their part, Christians try to understand this special attitude. But also, in accordance with our tradition, they seek to distinguish between what flows from the religious reality and what has the value of legitimate requests in the political order. These latter are always subject to the contingencies of changeable circumstances. It also seems to me that the experience of recent years has caused us to give greater volute to the urgency and present worth of the testimony afforded in the contemporary world by monotheistic faith and by conduct deriving therefrom. This means the proclamation of a fatherhood and a providence that is common to all mankind which makes all brothers and children of God, all sharers in the same inviolable dignity which extends as well to the fundamental communities within which human life is carried on.

And here mention must be made of the family amongst other things. The General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that has just concluded concerned itself at length with the family. So many common values unite us with Judaism in this field. The values of justice and peace find their proper place in this context. There is much talk of them today, but in order to be truly respected and fruitful they must find their original inspiration again, that is, the revelation made to the fathers and, according to our Christian faith, brought to completion by Jesus. Jews and Christians can and ought collaborate for the good of all in the very name of their respective traditions. More precisely, they ought to collaborate for the good of man himself who, according to our common faith, was created in God's image (cf. Gen. 1:28).

Our commemoration, our remembrance and actualization of the past can in this way help us to interpret the present and show us the way to follow for the future — a threatening future yet full of hope.

May the Lord grant us, Jews and Christians together, the gift of living up to the requirements of this renewed call of which the present anniversary reminds us.

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Inserito 01/01/1970