Pope Francis marked the 50th anniversary of the turning point in the Catholic Church’s relations with Jews on Wednesday with a sharp condemnation of anti-Semitism, saying attacks on Israel’s right to exist were a form of hatred.
“To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism,” Francis told a delegation from the World Jewish Congress (WJC). “There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.”
Francis called for greater interfaith collaboration in the face of religious extremism. He devoted his usual Wednesday general audience to explaining to the Catholic faithful in St. Peter’s Square the importance of the “Nostra Aetate,” or “In Our Time” declaration, which revolutionized the church’s relations in particular with Jews.
The statement was one of the most important documents to emerge from the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the church into the modern world. It said Christ’s death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole, recognized the shared spiritual patrimony between Christians and Jews and decried all forms of anti-Semitism.
Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were in the VIP seats in the piazza and were treated to a meet-and-greet session with the pope after the general audience ended. The World Jewish Congress had a particularly large delegation, given that its leaders decided to hold their annual conference in Rome to coincide with the anniversary.
In his remarks, Francis said the declaration had transformed Catholic-Jewish relations from “indifference and opposition to collaboration and good will. From enemies and strangers we became friends and brothers.”
He lamented that the rise of terrorism had fomented suspicion and condemnation about religion in general. He said that while no religion is immune from fundamentalists, the world must look instead at the “positive values” that religions promote, especially in caring for the neediest.
“We can walk together, taking care of one another and of creation,” he said.
WJC President Ronald S. Lauder praised the Pope for his statements against anti-Semitism and said the pontiff “inspires people with his warmth and his compassion. His clear and unequivocal support for the Jewish people is critical to us.”
Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, a longtime partner in interfaith dialogue with the Vatican, recalled in a briefing with reporters that “Nostra Aetate” was approved following the horrors of the Holocaust, when the Catholic Church was forced to undergo a “reckoning of the soul” over its relationship with the Jewish people.
“Even if this tragedy was not an initiative of church — God forbid — nevertheless it could only take place because of 2,000 years of demonization of the Jews,” he said. “It was perpetuated ostensibly in Christian lands by ostensibly baptized Christians. This was therefore an enormous call to the church to look into itself.”
The lesson to be learned, he said, is that if such a toxic, 2,000-year-old relationship could be transformed into a wonderful friendship that is now an intrinsic part of the Catholic Church, “then there is no relationship, no matter how bad and how poisoned, that cannot be transformed into a blessed one.”