The Tenth Anniversary of Nostra Aetate

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Cardinal Willebrands

Italia       12/11/1975

On November 12, 1975, at the SIDIC center in Rome, Jan Cardinal Willebrands gave an address at a gathering to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Council declaration dealing with the Church's relation to non-Christian religions. The following text is a translation from the Italian.

We are assembled here today in deep friendship to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Council declaration Nostra Aetate. I am particularly happy to participate in this meeting because, together with the late Cardinal Bea, I lived through its many vicissitudes and directly experienced all the ups and downs, both public and private, of the discussion concerning it. I witnessed the stages of the successive ballots which led the Council to draw up the project of the decree « De Judaeis ». This project was distributed to the central preparatory commission in June 1962 and resulted in the promulgation of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, section four of which treated of « The Jewish Religion ». I feel that, at this center, it would be superfluous to recount the details of this complicated story. I shall simply recall the fact that, at the final ballot, the text received the placer of over ninety-six per cent of the voters. Let us recall Pope Paul's homily to the Council on the day of the promulgation of the decree, October 28, 1965, a little over ten years ago. It ended with this paragraph (which was, in fact, the penultimate):

« The universal community of priests, religious and faithful should rejoice at this promulgation as at a new manifestation of that love for which Christ did in fact ordain the hierarchical ministry. At this manifestation of the enhanced beauty of the face of the Catholic Church we wish to consider the followers of the other religions, above all, those united with us by the fatherhood of Abraham, especially the Jewish people, today no longer the object of reprobation and suspicion but of respect, love and hope. »

You will notice that in this solemn pronouncement referring to the declaration Nostra Aetate as a whole, the Holy Father, after mentioning descent from Abraham. specifies « maxime Hebraei». He thus deliberately stresses the very special links that unite Jews and Christians, looking not so much to common historical points of reference as to faith and knowledge of the God who revealed himself to Abraham. He thus suggests the perceptiveness and depth with which the relations of Catholics with Jews should be considered and lived. Within the larger framework of spiritual brotherhood in Abraham we have a special affinity which nothing can diminish.

Though well understood, it must nevertheless besaid that this unique affinity should not cause us to forget and hence to neglect the Muslims nor the followers of other religions. One of the great biblical teachings which our modern mentality, pervaded by a somewhat simplistic egalitarianism, often finds difficult to accept, is that in the divine plan of salvation each person has his own special place and his own special role. On this plane priorities and preferences, far from being expressions of an arbitrary injustice, are on the contrary concrete applications of a transcendent justice. In fact, this priority and this election are the means chosen by the Almighty, who is supremely faithful but also supremely free, to offer through human mediation the means of salvation to the whole of humanity. If these means are to be adequately adapted to man's nature they must necessarily be individualized and localized in space and time. This sense of the concreteness of human things, and hence of God's plan, is one of the fruits which we Christians can gather from our friendly and perceptive relations with the Jews, relations which the declaration Nostra Aetate specifically urges us to develop and to initiate, because so far very little has been done in this field. In some countries. especially those with the largest Jewish population in a national context that is, at least culturally, mainly Christian (I have in mind, for example, the United States of America, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and France), not only the spontaneously formed Jewish-Christian groups, but also the authorities of the Catholic Church and of the local Jewish communities have already contributed to the development of these relations and to the creation of a new atmosphere which will enable them to be greatly expanded in the near future.

A real dialogue has been started in those countries which we have done no more than mention, always in the way most appropriate to the locality; this is also true of other countries such as Spain. It is to be hoped that this dialogue, together with other forms of collaboration considered opportune by both parties, should continue to develop. Such development is particularly important in the fields of Jewish-Christian relations and of ecumenism properly so-called, because relations at the local level will succeed in changing mentalities and will finally make possible the real, concrete initiation of a new global relationship between the Church and Judaism.

However, openings for action at the international level are not for that reason less important. Vertical or world-wide relations necessarily stimulate local communities and confront them with demands to which they should respond. On the other hand, they have their own importance and necessity in so far as they involve the whole Church, affecting both Christians and the large Jewish organizations concerned with religious tradition, whose sphere of influence goes beyond local interests and the different currents that can be detected within Judaism.

You all know that for many years there has existed within the Secretariat for Christian Unity an office specializing in relations with Judaism. Professor Rijk, now director of SIDIC, guided it from the beginning with zeal and competence, and I would like to take this occasion of expressing to him once again, publicly, my sincere gratitude. A year ago this office was promoted to the status of « Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews », thus realizing a project elaborated several years ago. This change is in itself a progress. a step forward, in the sense that, although such an administrative change is a token, it also affords new possibilities of dialogue and of initiative within the Catholic Church.

It is for us to exploit these new possibilities so as to make the teaching of Nostra Aetate pass into the sensitivity, into the spirit, into the actions of Christians. In accordance with this implementation of Nostra Aetate, we should mention on occasions such as our celebration today the publication of Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4) which appeared at the beginning of 1975.

By offering further possibilities of development, the publication of this document — like the creation of the new commission — imposes on all Christians in their relations with the Jews an added responsibility, a new duty. In the introduction to Guidelines and Suggestions the aim is expressed thus: « On the practical level in particular, Christians must therefore strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience. » We must weigh well the meaning of these words.

I do not wish, nor am I able, to enter into details today. By stressing the fact that the declaration is addressed to Catholics, I want to ask all Catholics — not only those engaged in dialogue with Jews — to realize the seriousness of the suggestions proposed and to make their own the general orientation given in this document. If this is done, positive and important results can be expected. To return to the words of the introduction already quoted: they speak of « the religious tradition of Judaism » and of the « Selbstverstiindnis » of the Jews, always in « the light of their own religious experience ». You are well aware that our commission was formed for religious relations with the Jews. The specific mention of the religious aspect is sometimes seen as a restriction on the responsibility of this commission, even as a restriction which renders almost impossible the free development of dialogue.

The Jews understand themselves primarily as a people; yet the question immediately arises: why, in what sense a people? What factors have determined the origin and the formation of this people? Could it be that the Jewish religion itself created the people? We Christians also understand ourselves as a people, and for us also our peoplehood is shaped by our religion. Yet it is clear that we are not a people in the sense of being a definite nation. If at this point we stress a difference between the Jewish people and the Christian people, it remains nevertheless true that it is the religious element that determines our understanding of ourselves as a people.

Here the fact that the document Guidelines and Suggestions does not speak of the State of Israel can also be understood. We recognize all the problems connected with the existence of the State of Israel. The State as such is a political fact. From the Jewish point of view, the bond uniting all Jews, individually and collectively, to the State of Israel is often stressed. The political problem in itself is not within the competence of our commission, so it should have no place in the document. The religious aspect which, for many Jews, exists also in the link between the people and the state or, more precisely, the territory of a state, has not been discussed in depth by Catholics and Jews. This religious aspect of the « Selbstverstiindnis » of the Jews, and also of the Christian conception and interpretation, would be, on the other hand, more a religious and, to a certain extent, a theological problem. Touching this specific aspect, Jewish-Christian dialogue does not exclude discussion even on this point. However, we leave consideration of the political element involved here to those who consider themselves responsible in the political field.

In this sense Cardinal KOnig has said: « We need to keep in mind that the Guidelines is not a political but a religious document. » Speaking of the State of Israel he continues: « It deals with a problem much discussed also among our Jewish interlocutors; it is therefore obvious that the Catholic Church is less well equipped to take up a position. »

Another point that has caused surprise and a certain difficulty is the co-existence in the document of the affirmation of the dialogue, and of the duty of Christians to testify to their faith. The difficulty experienced by some in understanding that these two statements are compatible shows how urgent is the need for dialogue.

If, when two persons meet, one reveals himself to the other just as he is, opening his heart, explaining himself, by the very fact that he does this he witnesses to himself and to his convictions. Such openness demands trust and, dare I say, a sense of brotherhood, because one has to be sure of being listened to and of being accepted with the same trust that has inspired the self-communication. This communication can also be called witness. And it is precisely in this sense of communication of oneself and of one's principles that the document Guidelines and Suggestions intends the word « witness » to be understood when it says: « (Catholics) must take care to live and spread their Christian faith while maintaining the strictest respect for religious liberty in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. »

Certainly, dialogue between Catholics and Jews is weighed down by history and we must be grateful that it is now possible to engage in it with trust and mutual respect. For it is without doubt the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that has opened up this possibility. The new document for the application of the Council declaration gives many concrete suggestions for the development of this dialogue. Moreover, in 1970 the Secretariat for Christian Unity published a declaration on the subject, Reflections and Suggestions for Ecumenical Dialogue. The problem of honesty or of the relationship between dialogue and witness is not new. It is intrinsic to ecumenical relations of all kinds and is present in a very special way in dialogue between Jews and Catholics.

I have spoken of the weight of history. If a certain proselytism has, during the centuries, caused spiritual harm to all confessions, it has certainly damaged thosewho were guilty of it. In the relations between Jews and Christians we hope that errors and negligences will be diminished. This imposes renunciation of a certain way of witnessing which would indeed be none other than a caricature of true witness and, in fact, its negation.

In conclusion I would like to express the wish that a true dialogue based on religion and on real collaboration may enrich us both, Jews and Christians alike, as we work in different ways for the realization of the eschatological hope, the final establishment of the Kingdom of the Most High. This very hope is a common and essential element of faith and confers on our dialogue its own consistency and personality.

A last word. I have just said that the Council declaration Nostra Aetate has, during the ten years of its existence, already inspired certain concrete realizations at both local and international levels. Among these we must mention the SIDIC center which has invited us here today. We hope that, in collaboration with the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, it will bear much fruit in the future.

In fact, this evening's meeting celebrates also the tenth anniversary of the foundation of SIDIC, the international service of Jewish-Christian documentation. Considering to what extent relations between Christians and Jews have suffered in the past from lack of knowledge and information, the SIDIC center has already played an important role. I know that a fruitful exchange of information between SIDIC and the commission has alieldy begun. I rejoice at this and hope that in the future this collaboration will, in reciprocal independence, develop still more.

However, SIDIC is not only a center or a service of information and documentation. It is also a meeting-place whose unofficial character should facilitate encounter in an atmosphere of freedom and odiousness I want to stress these points because SIDIC is thus serving the cause which the Second Vatican Council had so much at heart. May the Lord bless its work.

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Inserito 01/01/1970