Friday, March 28, 2014


   The American Interfaith Institute in Philadelphia, PA is dedicated to building bridges of understanding between the Christian and Jewish faiths by eradicating the misconceptions which hinder their relationship.  

    At this time of year, the Institute sponsors sermons which help clarify the liturgical texts for Holy Week, that people have used for centuries as an excuse to practice antisemitism. They asked me to write such a sermon, and I offer it to you for our Lenten, and especially Holy Week, meditation.

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   Many years ago, as a young priest newly returned from Rome, where I had attended the first session of the Second Vatican Council, I was invited to speak at the Main Line Temple in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood.  At that time, Pope John XXIII had surprised the world by calling for the church to "open windows" and let the Spirit of universal brotherhood find new possibilities to blossom.

   When I arrived at the Temple, I drove into the parking lot and saw that it was full, save for one barricaded space.  Immediately, two men ran out, removed the barricade and waved me in.  When I got out of my car, I naively remarked, "There must be something big going on tonight.  I guess very few people will be here for my talk."  They laughed, "Father, you're the first priest to ever speak to us.  These people are all here for you."

   I walked into the vestibule and saw a tall, fatherly man coming toward me, whom I correctly guessed was the rabbi.  As he approached me, he called out, "So there you are.  Where have you been?  You're late."  Panicked, I looked at my watch.  "Rabbi, you told me to get here at 8 o'clock.  It's 7:45.  I'm fifteen minutes early."  Smiling broadly, the rabbi responded, "You're 2000 years late.  Where have you been?"  At that, Rabbi Theodore Gordon and I embraced.

   That evening, I said to the congregation that it was my joy to be present, and in the spirit of Vatican II, to discuss how much we shared in common.  "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are my fathers, too.  And Moses.  Your psalms are my songs.  The Revelation given to you shines its bright ray of truth into my faith.  I thank you for giving us your brother and our brother, Jesus." 

   I noted that Vatican II said that the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Scriptures.  The Council described the Jews as "most dear to God."  It called for mutual understanding and respect and decried any and all displays of antisemitism.  I said, "I apologize for the horrible suffering my people have caused you over the centuries."

   As I spoke, many started to cry.  And when I finished, just about everyone came up to me and embraced me.

   Vatican II also taught that salvation is open to all those who in good will follow their conscience.  One Friday evening, in another synagogue, a young man rose and said to me, "I just graduated from college.  For the past two years I had a Catholic roommate, and just about every day he said to me, 'Unless you become a Catholic, you will go to hell.'  What do you say to that?"  I smiled and said, "Well, your roommate obviously had no success.  Here it is, Friday evening, and you're in the synagogue."  Then I got serious.  "Do you believe that God wants you to be a Jew?"  He said firmly, "Yes."  I continued, "Now let me get this straight.  Do you believe, in good conscience and in your heart of hearts, that God wants you to be a Jew, now and for the rest of your life?"  Even more firmly, he replied, "Yes."  I said, "So if you become a Catholic, you'd be a hypocrite, wouldn't you?"  He said, "Yes."  Smiling broadly, I said, "Young man, if you become a Catholic, you'll go to hell."  Everyone got the point and laughed.

   But all was not pleasant.  At another synagogue, the rabbi pointed to an elderly couple in the congregation.  "They recently arrived here in America.  Not long ago in the country where they came from, on Good Friday evening, Christians broke into their house and struck nails into that man's head."  I recoiled in shock.  I thought of the recent Holocaust, the Shoah, and realized with deep sorrow that Vatican II's statement was only a small beginning.  We had a long way to go to eradicate 2000 years of antisemitism.

   One of the roadblocks in our work against antisemitism is the Gospel account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, that we read on Palm Sunday.  Sadly, what Matthew wrote has been used for centuries to justify hatred and violence against Jews  In that Gospel, we read that Pilate washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood.  Look to it yourselves."  Then Matthew writes the terrible words, "And the whole people said in reply, 'His blood be upon us and our children.'" (Mt. 27:25).

   It is difficult to read those harsh words.  Why did Matthew write them?  And why did he say, "the whole people?"  Obviously his statement is not a literal report of what happened.  Some Jewish leaders were involved, but clearly all the Jews were not present.  And in any case, no one can speak for all the Jewish people, then and forever.  The whole account needs explaining.

   For one thing, at the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, there was animosity between the Jews who accepted Christ and those who did not.  Matthew, himself a Jew who had accepted Christ, was part of that contention.  In fact, the Gospel shows that he actually favored Pilate and the Romans over the Jews.  So Matthew's harsh statement is a political, editorial comment that shows the intensity of feelings between the new Christians and the Jews at that time.

   The circumstances also influenced Matthew's statement.  At the time his Gospel was written, the Romans had totally destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.  Back then, the notion that God punished people for disobeying him was a mark of their religious culture--as it still is today among some Christians.  How many Sunday sermons today warn of God's punishment, e.g., floods and earthquakes, for our sins!  Today we know that such things as floods and earthquakes were happening for millions of years before humans and sin appeared; they are the very process of creation itself.  Matthew however, could have viewed this horrible event as God's rejection of the Jews for not accepting Christ.

   But earlier, Paul had written, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."  (Rom. 11:2, 29).  Matthew himself was preaching that Christ was God who had come among us in human form to tell us to love everyone with unconditional love.  And at the same time, Luke was writing that Jesus said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." (Lk. 23:34).

   In our day, Pope John Paul II referred to, "The People of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked."  Christ has not rejected his Jewish people.  Matthew's account belongs to the time it was written and to the circumstances of the day.  It does not in any way apply to today, and more strongly, it in no way justifies antisemitism.

    In fact, in a spiritual way, Matthew was right.  The "whole people" who called down the blood curse upon themselves and their children are the entire human community.  They are all of us, you and I.  We are the ones who made Jesus' suffering necessary.  We who proclaim Christ's self-sacrificing love for all the people, are called and responsible to be a light of love to all others, and especially to the poor, sick, vulnerable and outcast.  In the light of our faith, antisemitism is part of the sin that killed Jesus.  Purely and simply, antisemitism is anti-Christian.  Let's put an end to it now!

   Finally, before speaking at yet another synagogue, I was invited to dinner at the home of my host family.  It was the Feast of Tabernacles, and the father of the family had erected a tent on the back lawn.  When dinner was ready, the father called the children and they came rushing in, excitedly crying, "Abba!  Abba!"  Now, while the Jews do not mention God's name, they do have a formal word for God, or Lord.  It is, "Adonai."  But Jesus told us to call God by the informal, loving name, "Abba."  In the joyful voices of the children, I heard the call to our common Father.

   And as the years have passed since my visit to the Main Line Temple, I remember Rabbi Gordon and say, "Rabbi, now after even more than 2000 years, I hope that we Catholics are "catching up."

   And I pray that all that we do together in love, we do for the glory of Christ-Adonai-Abba, to whom be all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.






Thursday, March 13, 2014


   Pope Francis celebrates his first anniversary as a very popular pope who has made the church more acceptable to the public at large.  But he has not done much to unite the church within itself.  If the so-called "liberals" are happy because of Francis' very necessary focus on the poor, the "conservatives" are unhappy because Francis is upsetting their rigid view of the faith.  The divide among the one people of God remains.  It is deep, and Francis can't heal it by himself.  In the end, unity in the church is up to us.

   I know it seems impossible at this point in time, but we should stop describing ourselves in political terms.  Living our faith is not a political campaign to win power in our church.  We should describe ourselves according to the one faith that we all share.  Our basic concern should not be what side are we on but how spiritually mature are we.  Before I wrote this Post, I re-worked the page, "The Spiritually Mature Person."  I invite you to read it again.

   Our spiritual maturity requires an ever-evolving understanding of our faith.  We cannot live our faith in today's society and culture with the understanding we picked up when we were children.  Yet, how many of our public school children end their Christian education when they receive Confirmation?  How effective is the Religious education our children receive in Catholic high school and in our Catholic universities?  And beyond Religious education, how effective is their Christian formation?  How effective Christians are they--individually, in their families, in their work and professions, in education, business and economics, politics, science, the arts, etc.?

   As Pope Francis stresses care for the poor, I cringe at how many of our Catholic government and business leaders--almost all of them well off or even affluent--appear to be living and working in a bubble that isolates them from knowing and caring for the people they are responsible to serve.  As for ourselves, how well are we working with others of good will to care for and elevate our society and culture, and where necessary, peacefully heal and correct them, in the loving, saving grace of Christ?

   Pope Francis is an absolute monarch.  But that pertains to how he runs the church.  Our church may not be organized as a political democracy, but our faith is a graced democracy.  As Francis himself makes clear, neither the pope nor the bishops nor the rest of the clergy are superior to us.  We all share equal baptismal dignity, which is the Christ-like dignity of serving one another in peace and love--even to the extent of sacrificing something of ourselves for others.

   Making the world as much a luminous expression of Christ's saving love is not Francis' job alone.  Nor is it something he can or should try to do alone.  This Lent, let us remember anew that it is the job of all of us.