Hundreds of faithful gathered last week on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to recite a foundational Jewish prayer, the “Shema Yisrael.” Among those attesting to the one God of Israel were some 120 leading international rabbis. However, these rabbis were the religious minority at the interfaith conference marking five decades to the historic Catholic “Nostra Aetate declaration,” which formally rejected the Jewish people’s blame for Jesus’s death.
Located at the Domus Galilaeae, the aesthetically stunning Israeli headquarters for a million evangelicals belonging to a global Catholic stream called the Neocatechumenal Way, the meeting was formally supported by the Vatican as a tool for fostering interfaith fraternity. For the three-day early May conference, Pope Francis sent a personal message to be read to the seven cardinals, 20 bishops, Israeli politicians, and dozens of renowned artists and educators of both faiths who formed the 400 in attendance.
Although the challenges addressed by the Nostra Aetate declaration 50 years ago are still felt in an increasingly anti-Semitic European climate, rabbis there noted the “dramatic change” the declaration has had on Jewish-Catholic relations.
“An immense change from the prejudices and divisions of the past is being born. This event foreshadows a new spring, the birth of something new in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity,” said rabbis in a joint statement. Among the signatories were the American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, both well-known for their interfaith work.
The setting of the conference couldn’t be more idyllic. The stone and concrete artistic modern facility is located on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and affords postcard-perfect views.
Domus Galilaeae was tasked by Pope John Paul II to be “a center for initiatives aimed at establishing a more fruitful dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish World” at its inauguration during a 2000 papal visit. The immense guesthouse and learning center was funded — and built — by volunteers who took up hammers and nails alongside the priests and seminarians who live there. Influenced by monastic and Jewish study practices, it houses a sacred text library whose focal point is a kosher Torah scroll.
Although the center has seen 100,000 Jewish visitors, for many of the conference’s rabbis this meeting was their first experience with the Neocatechumenal Way. The Catholic stream emphasizes a return to the Jewish roots of the early Church in its practices. Seminarians at its 100 institutions learn Hebrew, and include its use in prayer or song.
There are several Neocatechumenal Way congregations throughout Israel and each year thousands of lay adherents from around the globe make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to mark their group’s “graduation” from a decade-long committed spiritual journey together. (Not surprisingly, Israeli Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau also spoke at the conference.)
“We were impressed by how, in the Neocatechumenal Way, faith is been transmitted to the children, by how families are rebuilt and by how people come to know the Scriptures and the roots Christianity: the faith of Abraham, the passage of the Red Sea, the Exodus, the history of salvation. From this a great respect and love for the Jewish people is born,” said the 120 rabbis of all Jewish denominations in a joint statement.
“We expressed our shared commitment to the presence of God in the world and our common desire to engage in tikkun olam, in repair of the world for all humanity, including the growing concern for the suffering of the poor, a greater respect for creation and the strengthening of the family,” said the rabbis.
‘We expressed our shared commitment to the presence of God in the world and our common desire to engage in tikkun olam’
The Neocatechumenal Way focuses on the reeducation of baptized adults who have gone off the religious path. Founded by Spanish artist Kiko Argüello after his own spiritual journey in the 1960s, it is led by the International Team of the Neocatechumenal Way, a triumvirate of Argüello, Carmen Hernández and Father Mario Pezzi, who hold the posts for life.
It is a socially conservative missionary stream within Catholicism and can be found in 25,000 communities in 124 nations. While its clergy joins the stream’s seminaries with the understanding they will be sent, alongside two laypeople, to serve within communities wherever there is felt to be a need — sometimes there are mixed results. A few Catholic communities have asked the missionaries to leave their congregations or suspend activities for five years.
The Catholic Church takes on modernity at Vatican II
Held some 100 years after Vatican I (which made papal infallibility Church law and attempted to combat liberal rationalism), the 1962-65 Vatican II council concurrently redefined the role of the Church vis-a-vis the world while shoring up its own internal unity against an increasingly secular society. (A Pew survey of religions in the United States published this week attests to Christianity’s ever-present fight against secularism and noted a three percent drop in seven years in the Catholic population.)
‘The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone’
The Nostra Aetate and the Neocatechumenal Way are both products of the Vatican II Council, which saw the Catholic Church address modernity through a new historical lens.
“As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock. Thus the 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,” stated the 1965 Nostra Aetate.
“Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” stated the declaration.
Neocatechumenal Way founder Argüello expressed his anguish over history’s largest display of anti-Semitism in a symphony he composed after a visit to Auschwitz.
“The Suffering of the Innocents: A Symphonic Homage and Prayer” was first performed at the Vatican before Pope Benedict XVI and has since toured the world, including a 2013 concert before an interfaith audience of 15,000 at the Auschwitz “Gate of Death.”
Those at the Israel performance were told the piece was inspired by the death camp’s gate, alongside Jesus’s suffering on the cross, “with his mother Mary crying for him, like all mothers of children slaughtered,” wrote Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater in a post-conference Times of Israel blog post.
“I still am not sure I am okay with this imagery and metaphor, but it is theirs, not mine, so I just tried to appreciate the love and repentance that Kiko was seeking to offer through his symphony,” wrote Grater, the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California, and co-founder of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative.
Grater wrote he was “nourished spiritually” in seeing Jews and Catholics from all over the world, “Holocaust survivors and those that hid Jews,” together reciting the “Shema Israel” prayer.
“As one human family, taking different religious paths, we stood together praying and hoping that the history of hatred, fear and persecution between our peoples could morph now into a more loving, respectful and prosperous future, each on our own paths, yet each trying to improve our world,” he wrote.