By Bishop Edward J. Burns – April 2015 Southeast Alaska Catholic
This month on April 4th Catholics and Protestants solemnly celebrated Easter, the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Orthodox Christians, who determine the date of Easter differently, celebrated Easter a week later, on April 12th.) For all Christians, the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday are at once a commemoration of a historical event and a lived, mystical participation in the events of Jesus’s Last Supper, passion and death, his burial and resurrection from the dead.
These days, and especially the Lord’s resurrection, are at the very heart of our faith. We believe that by suffering and dying on the cross and being raised from the dead on the third day, Jesus has overcome the power of sin and death forever. Moreover, all humanity are now able to share in the salvation won for us by his passion, death and resurrection.
Christians are called to imitate his example of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and non-violence as he walked the road to Golgotha and then suffered death.
At the celebration of the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral and in every Catholic community in this Diocese and around the world, we heard proclaimed the account of the deliverance of the people of Israel at the Red Sea as they passed from slavery in Egypt to freedom. It was a vivid and happy reminder of how at Passover each year the Jewish people come together to celebrate the great events of their deliverance from bondage and of the eternal and enduring covenant between God and Israel.
This year the first night of Passover coincided with Good Friday. The proximity of these two celebrations is both a reminder of our unique relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people and sadly, of the oftentimes difficult and tragic history of the Jews in Christian Europe. In past centuries Holy Week and especially Good Friday were occasioned by outbursts of violence and persecution by some Catholics and other Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Historically, too many Christians blamed the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus and believed that they were rejected by God and deserved exile and persecution.
Fortunately, fifty years ago, at the Second Vatican Council, a new relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people was established based on respect, dialogue and repentance. This new beginning occurred in the shadow of the memory of the persecution and massacre of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis before and during the Second World War.
The Council document “Nostre Aetete,” was adopted on October 28th, 1965. After celebrating the unique relationship that exists between Christianity and Judaism and the “great spiritual patrimony” common to both faiths, the Council Fathers declared that the hateful idea that the Jewish people were somehow responsible for the death of Jesus or that they were rejected or accursed was contrary to the truth of the Gospel, the message and spirit of Jesus, and Church teaching. In this ground-breaking document they unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and the teaching of contempt.
Noting that, “Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage, this sacred Council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be obtained, especially, by way of biblical and theological inquiry and through friendly discussions.”
In the past fifty years great progress has been made in establishing a new relationship of dialogue and friendship between Jews and Christians on the institutional, scholarly and personal level. This has required, on the part of Christians and their leaders acknowledging and taking responsibility for an often-times shameful and tragic history, made difficult at times by the different ways in which that history is perceived and understood.
Of particular importance have been the remarkable encounters since 1965 between the Popes and Jewish religious and secular leaders. One of the most notable of these was the visit of Pope John Paul II to the synagogue of Rome in 1986 in which he spoke of the Jewish people as “our elder brothers in faith.” In 2000 while visiting Jerusalem, he put a written prayer in the Western Wall, and expressed in the name of the Church, profound contrition for all of the wrongs done to Jews by Christians. His prayer concluded in these words, “Asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
As Christians and Jews celebrate during this month God’s mighty deeds of deliverance, redemption and freedom, may we continue to live in the truth, cherish our common heritage and work together to promote justice, charity and mutual understanding.