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Turning Back the Clock

The best that can be said about the Vatican’s revival of the traditional prayer for the conversion of the Jews, the so-called Tridentine Mass, is that it is deeply disappointing. The medieval text, traditionally the centerpiece of the pre-Easter Good Friday ritual, inspired centuries of Jewish humiliation and suffering at the hands of inflamed Christian faithful. It was removed from the liturgy in 1969, part of the sweeping church reform that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Now, in a startling act of insensitivity, Pope Benedict XVI has turned back the clock.

Church spokesmen, stung by worldwide Jewish protests, have argued over the past week that the change is minor and should offend no one, and that non-Catholics should respect “our freedom to formulate our prayers,” in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations.

With all due respect to a great world religion, the reassurances sound strained. The Vatican has been engaged for 40 years in an intense, formal dialogue with an international alliance of Jewish organizations, aimed precisely at reexamining those Catholic rituals that arouse Jewish sensitivities. The process, while sometimes rocky, has brought enormous strides in understanding and reconciliation.

The dialogue arguably reached its high point in April 1986, when Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue of Rome, the first pope ever to do so. Addressing the congregation, he declared that God’s covenant with the Jews was “irrevocable.” By that, church officials explained, he meant that God’s choosing of the Jews, giving them the Law and promising eternal life was, regardless of past church teaching, intact and unbreakable. Judaism was a living religion, not just a precursor to Christianity.

The pope went on to say that belief in Jesus “can never be the object of exterior pressure.” He said that in future Catholic-Jewish relations, “we shall each be faithful to our own sacred commitments.” That, church officials said, meant that the age-old Catholic mission to “save” the Jews by converting them was ended. The Jews had their own path to redemption.

Even in August 2000, when the church’s chief theologian, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, called for renewed Catholic efforts to missionize other faiths, church officials continued to say that Jews were exempt. The cardinal’s declaration, “Dominus Jesus,” argued at length that the Catholic Church was the only vehicle to divine salvation. Apologists explained that Judaism was, of course, an exception to the rule.

Now that same cardinal, newly renamed Pope Benedict XVI, has revived the conversion doctrine that has been the source of so much Jewish pain and fear through the centuries. He has done so, moreover, by resurrecting the prayer most identified with that fear. No, he has not made the prayer mandatory in churches, but neither do priests need permission to recite it. It is now a duly sanctioned alternative.

The prayer no longer speaks of Jewish “blindness” or “darkness,” much less “perfidy.” But it still asks that “all Israel be saved through Christ our Lord.” It was that missionizing ambition, not the phrasing of it, that troubled Jews through the ages. That was the doctrine that Pope John Paul II promised to annul.

The Tridentine Mass, a Latin text codified in 1570, begins with the words “Oremus et pro perfidis Judaeis,” or “Let us pray for the perfidious Jews” (though many modern scholars prefer the less-charged “faithless Jews”). The prayer asks that God “remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” After congregants kneel and pray silently, the priest calls to God, “who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness.”

Recited on Good Friday, the traditional anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion, the prayer sometimes provoked listeners in past centuries to fits of anti-Jewish rage. Jewish communities were regularly subjected to mass humiliation, typically required to hear the prayer in church, to rise and confess their “sins,” and then to receive ritual slaps and blows. Too often, the service ended in mob attacks on Jewish neighborhoods.

Pope John XXIII, the postwar liberal, rewrote the text in 1962 and removed the word “perfidious,” a significant gesture at the time. In 1969, under Pope Paul VI, the Latin prayer was removed from the ritual altogether. Replacing it was a dramatically new text, recited in local languages. In the new version, Catholics “pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.” After a moment of silence, the priest reminds God of “your promise to Abraham and his posterity,” and asks “that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption.”

Implicit in the 1969 prayer was the notion, revolutionary for Catholics, that Judaism’s own path to redemption, its covenant with God, might still be valid. The call to convert Jews is glaringly absent. It took another 17 years of soul-searching dialogue for Pope John Paul II to make the revolution explicit. By then, we were told, we had entered a new era of Catholic-Jewish amity.

In his 1986 synagogue address, Pope John Paul II spoke of moving beyond tolerance to active “collaboration” between the two faith communities. He cited numerous areas where Catholicism and Judaism share common values and should join forces for social change: freedom, individual rights, “individual and social ethics.”

In America, at least, Jews and Catholics have a long tradition of making common cause in the public sphere, working together for religious freedom, the rights of labor, immigrants and the poor, and much more. In recent years, it’s true, the collaboration has been clouded by disagreements, mainly over abortion and the lessons of the Holocaust. Progressives on both sides have looked to the continuing process of dialogue and reconciliation to lift those veils and clear the road forward.

The revival of the Tridentine Mass is a grave setback to this reconciliation. There should be no mistaking that: Christian missionizing raises deep and abiding anxieties among Jews of every stripe. It demeans Judaism and ultimately threatens Jewish security. If the Church does not mean to raise that troubling standard once again, it should say so as quickly and clearly as possible.


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