During the last weeks, the liturgical calendar has furnished us with many opportunities to contemplate the Jewish roots of our holy Catholic Faith. The Word was made flesh in the womb of a Jewish Mother, and the Holy Family were devout Jews who observed the rituals and customs of their religion. Eight days after the Nativity, Our Lord formally received the name ‘Jesus’ and was made a member of God’s chosen People in the ceremony of Circumcision.
On 2nd February we celebrate Candlemas. The mystical significance of the Christ Child’s Presentation in the Temple was not lost on Simeon, the devout old man who had been assured by the Holy Ghost that he would not die before setting eyes on ‘the Christ of the Lord’. Simeon’s Canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, is sung by the Church each night at Compline, and expresses all the longing of the Old Testament for the universe-changing event which Simeon witnessed unfolding before him: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace … for mine eyes have seen thy salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” At Candlemas we process with candles to celebrate this inextinguishable light that has come into the world.
For Christians, the Old Covenant is completed and fulfilled in the New. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the new “Law of the Gospel ‘fulfils’, refines, surpasses and leads the Old Law to its perfection.”
That being said, the common spiritual patrimony of the Old Testament that we share with the Jewish people, and the Jewish foundations of our Catholic Faith, mean that it is only natural that there should always remain a unique and indissoluble bond between Jews and Christians. Despite tensions that have sometimes scarred this relationship, love for the Jewish people and respect for their traditions is a mark not only of any civilized Christian but also of orthodox Catholicism.
In contrast to the anti-Judaism of dualist heretics such as Marcion, the Church insisted from the beginning that the Old Testament forms an essential component of the Gospel. St Augustine taught that Christians must treasure the living witness to the promises of the Old Testament that the Jews continued to provide, and in subsequent centuries this doctrine gave theological reinforcement to the Church’s desire to protect Jewish communities from any persecution.
In the sixteenth century our holy father St Philip Neri was noted for the friendships he cherished with members of Rome’s Jewish community, a number of whom converted to the Faith. In Philip Neri, The Fire of Joy, Fr Paul Turks explains: “It appears as if the Gospel, that is to say, the whole of Sacred Scripture, was for Philip the link to the Jews. Without citing the details of particular conversions, one can say that Philip did not debate, but begged them ‘to pray to the God of Abraham and Isaac’, and professed that he himself would convert to Judaism if he saw that the Law was better. He would not engage in militant disputes … it was Philip’s respect for the liberty and the conscience of the other and his open-hearted kindness that helped them to conversion.”
When the prominent Roman Jew Solomon Corcos was baptized in 1582, he adopted the name Boncompagni, after the family name of Pope Gregory XIII. After his conversion, he and his Corcos-Boncompagni descendants were major benefactors of the Chiesa Nuova. Amongst other works, they commissioned the magnificent statue of St Philip in the sacristy by Algardi.
In subsequent centuries, the Roman Oratorians sought to maintain our holy founder’s relations with the city’s ancient Jewish community. This solicitude was recognized in 1999, when the saintly Fr Alfredo Melani of the Oratory’s Garbatella parish was recognised by the State of Israel as ‘Righteous among the Nations’ for his work rescuing Jews who sought refuge from Nazi persecution. Another Roman Oratorian, Fr Giuseppe Ferrari (‘Padre Peppino’ to those of us who knew and loved him), housed Jews in the attics above the Chiesa Nuova, in the stanze of St Philip, and even in his own room, during the Nazi occupation. The Israeli descendants of some of the survivors kept in touch with him until his death in 2008. He declined to accept any honour for himself, on the grounds that it should rather be granted posthumously to Pope Pius XII, who had asked the Roman Oratorians to help the city’s Jews.
In our own age, the Church can be grateful for those of Her Jewish friends who have come to Her defence when Catholicism has been under attack. After the war Pope Pius XII was acclaimed as a hero by prominent Jews, but since the 1960s aspersions have been cast on his response to the plight of European Jewry. While some of his harshest accusers have been disaffected Catholics, Pius XII’s most determined defenders are Jewish. They include the distinguished American historian, Rabbi David G. Dalin, who argues that Pope Pius XII deserves to be hailed as a ‘righteous gentile’, and the indefatigable justice and truth campaigner Gary Krupp, who founded the Pave the Way foundation to promote friendship between Christians, Jews and Muslims of good will, and who has made restoration of Pope Pius XII’s reputation his life’s work.
During various plots to derail the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, it was often the Church’s Jewish friends who proved most valiant in defending His Holiness. In 2008 the Pope was vilified after composing a new Good Friday prayer for the Jews for use in the Usus Antiquior. The prayer asks God to “illuminate their hearts, so that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men.” While certain Catholics denounced the prayer as politically incorrect, it was vigorously defended by the eminent American scholar of Judaism Rabbi Jacob Neusner, who wrote that the Catholic prayer “manifests the same altruistic spirit that characterizes the faith of Judaism”, and pointed out that in the standard liturgy of the synagogue, the Jews pray for the conversion of gentiles three times a day, while the Catholic prayer is only used liturgically once a year.
Again, in the pre-orchestrated hoo-hah that ensued when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, the most robust supporter of the Pope turned out to be the American Orthodox Jewish leader and champion of the pro-life cause, Rabbi Yehuda Levin. While Catholics cowered, Rabbi Levin fearlessly declared that the Pope’s initiatives to restore unity within the Catholic fold could only contribute to the common good, on the grounds that a strengthened and unified Catholic Church is necessary for the safeguarding of civilization and the sanctity of life.
After Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication last year, Jewish leaders all over the world acclaimed him as a friend. Typical of the accolades was a statement from Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger: “During the period of his pontificate there were the best relations ever between the Church and the Chief Rabbinate.” And Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar praised the Pope as a “justice warrior”.
Closer to home the ever gracious Chief Rabbi-emeritus, Lord Sacks, has long been a consistent defender of the role of Christianity in the public life of this realm, and has publicly decried the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, which he recently described as a tragedy “going almost unremarked.”
On the Feast of Candlemas, as we celebrate the encounter of the Old Covenant with the New, we should praise God for these invaluable marks of friendship, and contemplate ways in which we can help the Church to forge ever closer ties with our allies in the Jewish community. In the spirit of St Philip, we should continue to pray, unashamedly but with utmost respect and charity, for the salvation of the Jewish people. At the same time we can give thanks for the prayers that the liturgy of the synagogue offers thrice daily for our own salvation. May their prayers and ours be answered at the Throne of Grace.