Why I am not against Assisi

Pope Benedict XVI disembarks the train that brought him to Assisi

I haven’t paid much, if any, attention on the blog to today’s interreligious meeting at Assisi, hosted by the pope. The main reason is that I am somewhat taken aback by the onslaught of negative comments about this meeting, even after the program and the intentions have been made public. Even now, as the religious leaders are gathering in the town of Saint Francis, I read tweets warning of dark clouds gathering. And, I’m sorry top say, it’s mostly the ultra-orthodox among us who are so against the whole affair that they are seemingly unable to have some faith in the intelligence and intentions of our Holy Father. From the announcement of the meeting, given during the Angelus of 1 January:

“It will aim to commemorate the historical action desired by my Predecessor and to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace. Those journeying to God cannot but transmit peace, those who are building peace cannot but draw close to God. I ask you, from this moment, to accompany this project with your prayers.”

Now, I do understand some of the concerns that people may have. The 1986 meeting at Assisi did see a mingling of religious traditions, which is at least inconsiderate and at worst a blasphemy. But that is a concern that the Holy Father shares! That is why, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he did not attend the 1986 meeting. But these concerns do not merit an all-out boycott of today’s meeting.

In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate, the Church declared that:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (Cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-19).” [2]

Buddhist dignitaries arrive at the Assisi train station

Although they are different and contain less than the full truth, the Church nonetheless recognises that other religions and faiths can contain glimmers of that truth. God, after all, is not limited, and He can reveal Himself to all men of good will, regardless of nationality, affiliation or faith. This does not diminish the fact that He has given the Church as the way to His eternal love, but nor does it doom people who have been unable to come in contact with the Church to eternal damnation.

Other faiths and religions exist. That is a fact of life. All people, and believers especially so, are called to promote peace and justice in the world. What power, what enormous grace must a committed meeting to pray for that peace and strengthen one another in our commitment to it have!

So, no, I am not against Assisi. Its goal is a worthy one, and I have full confidence in our Holy Father that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. That confidence is confirmed by the program of the meeting: there will gatherings of all kinds of religions, people of different faiths speaking to and with one another. There will be no denying, as mixing them up does, the uniqueness and identity of each faith or religion, least of the Catholic Christian faith.

Photo credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Day of Judaism

The Dutch bishops decided in 2008 to have an annual Day of Judaism in January, following the example of the Church in Italy, Poland and Austria. The purpose of that day is to pay attention to what Judaism means for us Christians.

That’s a pretty general statement, of course. It’s very easy to simply acknowledge the role that the Jewish people played in the past and leave it at that.

A step further is to seek out Jewish people and institutions and actively establish a form of contact with them. The pope will be doing that by visiting a synagogue in Rome, and my bishop will do so likewise with a synagogue in Groningen. This is a way to establish contact and acknowledge one another’s existence and value.

Likewise, there are ways to inform the Catholic faithful about the beliefs and values of the Jewish people. Parish meetings, discussion groups and what have you. I don’t know if this is also done in reverse, that rabbis visit churches or Jewish groups learn about the Christian faith, but this is primarily an initiative from the Dutch Church province.

Why a specific Day of Judaism, though? The Second Vatican Council devoted a declaration to the relations of the Church with other faiths. About Judaism, it says:

[T]he Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ – Abraham’s sons according to faith – are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself. (Nostra Aetate 4)

The Jewish people are the olive tree upon which the wild shoots have been grafted. The wild shoots, the gentiles who were not Jewish but became followers of Christ through baptism, are dependent on the tree. Without it they will die.

In the Old Testament we may find the details of the development of the Convenant that God made with the people of Israel. Last night, I attended a faith evening in my parish, where this topic was further discussed. Mark Borst, who made the introductory remarks, explained the line of covenants and oaths that God made with the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. He took this from Scott Hahn’s book A Father Who Keeps His Promises. It started with Adam and the covenant affected a couple: him and Eve. A second covenant was made with Noah, who was a father, and so the covenant affected a family. Then came Abraham, the leader of multiple families. Moses is next, who leads a complet people, or at least a group of tribes, out of Egypt. David is next, and he is king of the people of Israel, as well as a number of other peoples in the territories he conquered. The last covenant is the one made by Jesus, and that covers all the peoples: a covenant that only God Himself could keep.

We see development in covenants that includes and affects an ever larger group of people. Until the fifth step, the Jewish people are at the core of the covenants with God (which all remain in effect, by the way – they are fulfilled and reinforced in each other and ultimately in Christ), and step six, the covenant that Jesus forged on the cross, comes forth out of them.

With this logic it is clear that there is a very old and strong connection between the Church and the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II rightly called them ‘our older brother’, who taught us about who God is and what He does.

However, there are differences, as should be clear. Not being on expert in Judaic theology, I’ll limit myself to the one difference that is most divisive: the Messiah. In essence, Judaism still awaits the coming of the Messiah, while Christianity maintains He already has come in Jesus Christ. This difference has led to much animosity and misunderstanding over the centuries and indeed it took a while for both parties to achieve a level of mutual understanding.

The Church acknowledges the differences and prays for the recognition of Christ as the Messiah by all people, but no longer accuses the Jews of having murdered Christ and being a forsaken people.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. (Nostra Aetate 4)

This Day of Judaism has the potential to bridge the gap that still exists between Christians and Jews. But it does require work. A bishop’s visit to a synagogue is good for local contacts and should be encouraged as such. But when I see only about a dozen people faithfully attending a faith evening about the the covenant of Moses, I can’t help but think that the information will reach only a few people.

Respectful positive dialogue with the Jewish people, coming from both sides, is the way to go, acknowledging the things we share (and we share a lot) and the things that divide us. That is fair to us, to them, and to God.