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Catholics, Jews and the Papal Pilgrimage

Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the Holy Land sparks a lively dialogue.

Msgr. Stern: When King Abdullah II of Jordan welcomed John Paul II at the beginning of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I thought the King’s remarks captured the essence of the trip. The King greeted the Pope as a holy man, adding, “We welcome you as a symbol of all that is pure and noble in this life…[you] remind us…of the absolute need for forgiveness of one’s enemies.” The King then evoked the blessing of God in the words of the Qur’an.

The Pope’s journey to the Holy Land was truly a pilgrimage, which in the best sense of the word is a prayerful journey of faith and includes reflection and prayer about the things that happened there.

Rabbi Klenicki: For the Jewish community, and especially the Israeli people, the trip had special significance: it contributed much by enhancing and giving new dimensions to the Catholic-Jewish relationship. It was more than a trip – it was a pilgrimage to the very sources of Judaism and Christianity.

Msgr. Stern: Although media commentators and some speakers over the course of the pilgrimage tended to concentrate on the trip’s political significance, above all it was a spiritual experience. It also included, how-ever, some symbolic visits to places that touched the deepest hurts of the people of the Holy Land, the Palestinians and the Jews.

The purpose of touching the grief of both peoples was, also in the words of King Abdullah, to convey a message of forgiveness and mutual understanding.

Rabbi Klenicki: I must confess that I’m somewhat disturbed by your constant references to the Holy Land. Are you speaking of the State of Israel or other political entities in the area? There has been a trend among some Christians or Christian denominations who are critical of the State of Israel to refer to Israel and the whole area as the “Holy Land,” which deeply hurts our feelings.

Msgr. Stern: I understand and it’s regrettable if it’s perceived that way. You’re right – there are some people who deliberately say “Holy Land” to avoid saying “State of Israel.” On the other hand, “Holy Land” is a traditional Christian parlance about that part of the world that goes back for many, many centuries. The Pope journeyed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel and to the autonomous Palestinian territories, but I would not say that he made a pilgrimage to these political entities. The Pope’s pilgrimage was to a land sanctified by the great events of the past and by the action of God. Perhaps it’s better to say he was on pilgrimage to the holy places.

Rabbi Klenicki: There were several moving moments during the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II. One of them was his visit and words at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. His presence there, his obvious emotional state and his words brought to all of us, and especially to those who suffered in the Holocaust, a sense of solidarity as well as a healing of the heart.

Msgr. Stern: The moment at Yad Vashem was deeply moving, but there the Pope stood as a Christian expressing his compassion and anguish at what happened to Jews. For me, the more important symbolic moment was the Pope at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Klenicki: I agree with you. He was projecting a message to the Jewish community, especially since that was his last act during his visit to Jerusalem.

Msgr. Stern: What was very powerful about the image of the Pope at the Wall was that he was praying at the Wall as any good Jew prays at the Wall. The Pope –the preeminent Christian – was praying at this most special and privileged place of prayer for Jews.

Rabbi Klenicki: I agree that the Pope’s praying projected another dimension of his vocation for Christian-Jewish dialogue as it was already expressed during his visit to the synagogue in Rome. That image of the Pope by the Wall still moves me deeply and projects a spiritual message on which we should reflect together.

Msgr. Stern: When the Pope stood at the Wall and prayed he was not a Christian imitating a Jew. He prayed at the Wall as a believer in the one God.

To me the powerful symbolism was that Jews and Christians are one. His prayer at the Wall was a symbol of that oneness. We are not two people dialoguing like strangers trying to become friends. We are more like estranged members of one family trying to rediscover our family solidarity.

Rabbi Klenicki: The concept of the relationship of Jews and Christians as a family is challenging yet also promising. We have seen each other through our colloquia or meetings as two rather different entities trying to overcome contempt or difficult memories, especially Jewish memories of past anti-Judaism expressed by Christians. But now the concept of family opens new possibilities to our relationship.

Msgr. Stern: As you say, so often over the years we dialogue as one entity talking to the other. Sometimes we allude to our commonality when we say, in the words of St. Paul, that the Gentiles were grafted onto the stock of the Jews. We use a metaphor, as you often do, that we are two branches of the one tree. Sometimes we use the expression, “brothers,” as does Pope John Paul II.

The existential reality is that we have one common, shared heritage. The Christian, if the Christian is a good one, is nurtured by the faith of biblical Israel. The Christian considers the Hebrew scriptures as much a source of spiritual nourishment as the Jew.

For me, the challenge of dialogue is to rediscover that we are one. We need to emphasize our commonality, rather than constantly making a starting point from our differences.

Rabbi Klenicki: I confess a certain ambiguity about the idea of being one. It makes me feel that I’m losing my oneness, my own faith commitment. I feel uneasy because the idea of being one might entail a sort of syncretism that blurs the specific dimensions of our different vocations of God.

Msgr. Stern: Traditionally, Jews have distinguished themselves and separated themselves from Gentiles.

Rabbi Klenicki: Bob, let me remind you that often in history we were separated from society at large by others or by the power of both the secular and religious authorities, as in the creation of the ghettos in the early Middle Ages. Let us try to be cautious in certain descriptions of our spiritual vocation in the history of the West.

For the first time in history, we are now living in societies like the United States where we can be ourselves, where we are not pushed into separate geographical areas.

Msgr. Stern: I did not mean to imply that Judaism withdraws from the Gentiles, but biblical Judaism stresses keeping itself separate from the Gentile world – in those days, the world of paganism. We Christians are not those Gentiles. We are fellow believers in the One. We are “Jews.”

Rabbi Klenicki: I agree that the reaction of the biblical person was against pagans rather than Gentiles. That Christians are Jews is a matter that requires careful consideration because it implies an analysis of the role and vocation of Jesus in Christianity, a vocation that we might see differently. When you said that Christians are Jews, Bob, one image immediately came to mind – that is, why were Christians not in the cattle trains going to Auschwitz?

Msgr. Stern: You can’t judge a book by its cover. Not everyone who bears the name of Christian is a Christian and I suppose not everyone who calls himself a Jew is a Jew. Of course it’s provocative to say Christians are Jews. If Jews are a people, an ethnic community, of course Christians are not actually Jews. But, if Jews preeminently are the people of the promise, the people of the covenant, the followers and worshippers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we Christians feel we are too. When we look at it in the best of lights, we see in Jews our fellow believers. It’s a bold assertion for the Christian to claim a share of all that Jews hold dear to themselves.

I believe that we are basically one divided people, not two religions encountering one another.

Rabbi Klenicki: We are a divided family, but what I want to emphasize is that sometimes brothers and sisters in a family are different. Their roots are the same but, using Paul’s image, the branches are different. Does this mean that we are going to be in a confrontational relationship throughout eternity?

Msgr. Stern: God forbid! It’s no original sentiment to say that, as members of one family, we Christians and Jews are like Jacob and Esau. Sometimes the bitterest things can be done within the family. This is not to justify them; this is only to observe a reality.

Rabbi Klenicki: As a family we require some basic elements that are part of a normal, creative family. One of them is to recognize the other, not as an object – the object “brother,” “sister,” “father” or “mother” – but rather the subject brother or sister, a person created by God with equal rights and an equal possibility of expressing spiritualities. Otherwise, one brother would dominate over the other, or a sister over the other.

Msgr. Stern: I agree, of course. I wonder if using the image of “one family” is not also a helpful way to understand the problem of conversion. If we are one family, it is inappropriate for Christians to try to recruit Jews and adopt them into the Christian family – and vice versa – since they’re already members.

We speak about God’s fidelity to his word and to the covenant and we respect the fidelity of those who follow the covenant. In the modern world, where we are so aware of the role of conscience, we say the Lord looks on each of us and measures us by how well we live according to the lights we have. So if Christians and Jews have different understandings of the will of God and of the covenant that God makes with us, that’s all right. One may try to persuade another of the relative merits of his ways, but we are not two separate religions seeking to convert one to the other. If we look at ourselves as one, many other things are seen in a whole new light.

Rabbi Klenicki: But again, Bob, I must stress my fear of syncretism. I have said innumerable times – and I have been involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue for more than 40 years – that a dialogue is the encounter and interplay of two faith commitments, a Jew and a Christian. I always stress in my teaching and in my writing that the real dialogue is between a Jew who is a Jew and a Christian who is a Christian. Otherwise, it is an encounter of goodwill and tea and sympathy, leading to syncretism and confusion. I would agree that we are a family, but we must keep our differences.

Msgr. Stern: You and I talk to each other easily. It’s hard to surface the differences, although we can if we try hard enough. Within both the Jewish and Christian communities themselves, there are tremendous differences. Look at the differences in the faith commitment and understanding between a Reconstructionist rabbi and a Hassidic rabbi. Look at the differences between a Methodist minister and a Greek Orthodox priest. Look at the style of worship, how wildly different it is between Christians in Ethiopia and Christians in Sweden, or Jews from Yemen and Jews from Russia. So within both of these communities of faith, there’s a tremendous divergence. Some Jews and some Christians can find greater affinities with one another than they can find in their own faith communities.

Rabbi Klenicki: I understand your point, and I have to tell you that I might have differences with fellow Jews concerning traditions or customs, but I always feel that I am part of the people of God and am respectful of the differences in theological approaches or customs. What I don’t like, and even resent, is that a fellow Jew should talk to me and say that I’m less Jewish because I don’t follow certain traditions. We have different approaches in the Jewish life, but we always feel like family and the people of God.

My dream is that Jews and Christians should have that sense of being part of a family, the people of God, and be together when facing the world. We have to act together as a family facing poverty, the lack of concern for and belief of many of our younger generations, the weakness of committed faith and other matters that are of deep concern to religious people.

Msgr. Stern: Amen! I agree with everything you say, and, from at least one point of view, you could even widen the net when you speak about the people of God – it means all Jews and Christians.

I would ask too that no Jew or Christian tell the other that his faith is any weaker than their own or accuse the other of being any less faithful in seeking and obeying the will of God. Even in our way of speaking we can easily learn to speak of our ourselves as one family with our multitudinous differences. Thanks be to God for that possibility.

Rabbi Klenicki: John Paul II’s trip was a unique event for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But I think it gave everyone, especially us, old friends, the opportunity to talk about matters of mutual concern within the interfaith dialogue and a sense that we are together as Jews and Christians in this world. Though while stressing the relationship with the “older brother” at the synagogue in Rome Pope John Paul II didn’t refer to family itself, he projected that concept, which is interwoven through our discussion and our dialogue. That is, we are a family, God’s family.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern is Secretary General of CNEWA. Rabbi Leon Klenicki is Director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League.

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