Progress Seen in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue

So Says New Vatican Secretary for Relations with Judaism

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ROME, JAN. 27, 2003 ( The Vatican’s point man for relations with Judaism says he is optimistic about the dialogue with the Jews, citing progress that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago.

To back up his optimism, Salesian Father Norbert Hofmann points to the high-level relations scheduled to begin soon between the Vatican and the Great Rabbinate of Jerusalem.

For the past two months, German-born Father Hofmann has been secretary for relations with Jews, a specific task undertaken by the Vatican through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The priest handles plans for congresses, and fosters Catholic-Jewish dialogue centers and other initiatives to improve and promote the meeting between the faiths. Among other things, he plans to further the dialogue in Eastern Europe and to involve young people.

Q: Can we be optimistic about the Catholic-Jewish dialogue?

Father Hofmann: At the outset I must tell you that as a Salesian I am always optimistic. Moreover, great progress can be seen in the history of 40 years of dialogue with Jews. Prior to Vatican Council II it was unthinkable; there was no progress. What is most significant is that the dialogue has reached a world level.

We already knew, for example, that in the United States there was a habitual practice of meetings between Catholics and Jews. The novelty is that the dialogue is taking place at different levels: with Orthodox Jews, with the ultra-Orthodox, with Conservatives, and those of the Reformed Synagogue.

Q: Is work done at the common level?

Father Hofmann: There is an initiative that is worth mentioning: the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation. Since 1970, we have established an institutional dialogue with this group of organizations.

We organize a congress every two to three years. Within a few days, the director of the organization will come to finalize details of the new congress.

The [Vatican’s] Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and this International Committee make up the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, which issues very interesting joint statements on topics such as the family, the environment, and the protection of religious liberty and holy places.

Q: What are the difficulties in the dialogue?

Father Hofmann: Sometimes we hope to talk on theological arguments and we realize it is difficult. It is much easier to be centered on common social problems, such as culture, the family, life as a gift of God, protection of the environment as God’s creation. Difficulties are greater in the doctrinal realm and less so in the moral.

Another difficulty is that in some cases we think we have so many things in common with the Jewish people, and forget that there are important and intrinsic differences.

For example, we Catholics think that our Old Testament is the same as the Jews’, and this is not so. We have a few additional books, the so-called Deuterocanonical, and, in addition, our interpretation is very different from the rabbinical. We must be cautious and not get confused.

Q: Do you notice a rapprochement of Jewish institutions that wish to be open to dialogue with the Catholic Church?

Father Hofmann: The interest is reciprocal. What happens is that the Jews are very conscious that they are talking with the Vatican, but we don’t have a single Jewish speaker [to talk to]. There are many different groups within Judaism, and this creates a certain difficulty for us.

Good news is the beginning of relations with the Great Rabbinate of Jerusalem. It is a good sign, given the present political difficulties.

The meeting will be both at the level of the local Catholic Church as well as at the international level with the Vatican. It is a very stimulating result that arose after the Pope’s visit to Israel in the Jubilee Year 2000. I think it is a great sign of hope — providential.

Q: Do the constant debates on Pius XII’s so-called silence darken the dialogue?

Father Hofmann: The debates on Pius XII have calmed down quite a bit. They were very intense in the year 2001, especially because of the breakup of the Joint Study Commission of Jews and Catholics.

Although the debate has calmed down, the possible beatification of Pius XII would be an obstacle for the promotion of dialogue. However, given the progress to date, we can no longer pull back.

On Feb. 15 the Vatican secret archives will be opened, which contain correspondence between the Holy See and the nunciature of Berlin and the Munich See during the most difficult years of Nazism. We need more in-depth study of this question.

Q: Can we say that this pontificate has been the most courageous in history in relation to the Jewish world?

Father Hofmann: The Pope has certainly favored dialogue, perhaps due to his personal experience. John Paul II lived the experience of the extermination of Jews in Poland and has always advocated reconciliation. In his visits around the world, the Pope has always insisted on meeting with the Jewish representatives.

He has also been the first Pontiff in history to visit the Synagogue of Rome, in 1986. While there, he referred to Jews as «our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham.» They are evident signs of his appreciation of the Jewish people.

It was very moving for a Jew to see the Pope praying at the Wailing Wall in the Holy Land, during his March 2000 visit. And let’s not forget that previously he had asked forgiveness for all the wrong the Church has committed against the Jewish people. This was, without a doubt, a very strong sign.

John Paul II is a visible sign for the promotion of dialogue between Jews and Catholics.

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