A Blessing to One Another

I recently attended the memorial service of a distinguished and much-loved retired judge. He was a devout member of the Jewish faith, and the service was held at a well-known London synagogue. There were some fine tributes to him: He served Britain with dedication, giving of his best and bringing honor to our legal system.

During the service, I was struck by how much Jews and Christians hold in common — the readings from sacred Scripture, for one, with the Psalms in particular being deeply familiar. One of the readings was “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” which we had at my own late father’s funeral in a Catholic church some years ago.

The singing in the synagogue was beautiful; it was easy to pray in such surroundings, and there was a great sense of the presence of God. The tributes paid spoke of values that really matter: family, loyalty, dedication, tradition, service. There was a sense of gratitude for a life well-lived, but also of awe and reverence as a human soul went to God. The prayers asked for God’s cleansing and that this man might be admitted to the place of peace and joy and rest. There was nothing bland or vague about it: There is but one God, and a human soul was going to meet Him. He was going to God surrounded by the words of the sacred Scriptures, chanted and read aloud in a place where he had prayed regularly all his life, trusting in God’s mercy.

I felt a sudden gratitude for living in a Church that, in Nostra Aetate, had cemented a bond of friendship between Christian and Jews. How sickening it is that there are still those who seek to oppose it (to be found, alas, among the Lefebvrists and their supporters). The Holy Father has clearly established the position of the Church, humbly speaking to warm applause at a Rome synagogue earlier this year where he lamented the Holocaust and proposing the Decalogue as a primary area for Jewish-Christian witness. He was emphatic: “The Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.”

 

I do hope that one person in particular — the author of a snide attack on the Holy Father’s synagogue visit — read those words, and reads them again now. The author of the nasty piece urged that this sort of visit be the pope’s last. It won’t be. From now on, papal visits to synagogues will be something quite normal, as will mutual greetings such as that recently sent by Pope Benedict XVI to the retired Rabbi Elio Toaff, who served as Rome’s chief rabbi from 1950 to 2001: “I want to join those who rejoice with you over the gifts that the Almighty’s mercy has lavished on you during a long and fruitful existence.” The pope’s personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, read the message on May 3 during a public celebration of the rabbi’s birthday attended by religious, civic, and government leaders.

Drawing on Psalm 23, the pope said the rabbi’s life story and work showed that God refreshed the rabbi’s soul, “guiding you along the right path, even in the darkest valley, at the hour of the persecution and extermination of the Jewish people.”

A couple of years ago, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibit titled “A Blessing to One Another,” showing John Paul’s relationship with the Jewish people from childhood onward. Echoing the same phrase, Benedict spoke at a synagogue in Cologne in 2005 about “blessed times” when Jews and Christians lived together in harmony, as well as mourning those times when they had not, including the expulsion of Jews from the city in the 14th century.

There can be “blessed times” of harmony and goodwill — and there could be more, with Jewish and Christian people working on issues of common concern and teaching new generations about things that all know are of central importance: marriage, family, the sanctity of life, honesty, kindness, courtesy.

The prayers that concluded the Jewish funeral service were beautiful, and were so like those that I had always been taught to use for the dead: “Master of mercy, cover him in the shelter of Your wings forever, and bind his soul into the gathering of life. It is the Lord who is his heritage. May he be at peace in his place of rest.”

Every funeral makes — and should make — us think about our own. We are, each of us, going to meet God. And the time to prepare is now — with a life of prayer, communicating with God, obeying His Commandments, seeking to live as He asks us to live, serving others, doing what is right. That is something that I quietly learned anew in that synagogue, and took away with me to ponder.

Joanna Bogle

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Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

  • Paul

    I enjoyed reading the article. Relations with those of the Jewish religious persuasion should be supported. One issue that strikes me though in much of the discussion about Christian-Jewish relations (specifically, Catholic-Jewish relations) is the idea of duel covenant theology that many hold to. I cannot tell you how many times I have read outright nastiness from other Catholics and Christians who advocate for such a belief and invoke Nostra Aetate to support it and condemn those who do not. Just wanted to get some thoughts from those here.

  • Sarah Pierzchala

    My husband, myself and eldest son attended a bar mitzvah this last Saturday. We instantly felt at home listening to the chanting of the psalms, following along in the prayer book, uniting our petitions with those of the congregation, etc. It was a wonderful reminder of how much heritage our faiths share!

  • Eric Giunta

    “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God”

    Isn’t this from the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom?! I did not know the Jews used these books in their liturgies! Really?

  • Austin

    The Jews have such a great heritage and tradition. They have persevered, often under savage persecution, for forty centuries. Also, perhaps due to all that persecution, they have developed a great sense of irony and perspective, which has resulted in so many wonderful comedians, from the Marx Brothers to Seinfeld.

  • R.S.Newark

    I don’t really believe the Marx Brothers nor Seinfeld are worthy examples of the Tradition.

  • Austin

    Over my almost 60 years, I have found that those who lack a sense of humor are also lacking in intelligence.

  • Aaron

    Intellectual honesty demands recognition of the truth that remains within the Jewish faith and the fidelity to that truth that can be found in SOME Jewish communities (I don’t really think Reformed and secular Jews clear the bar on this one). At the same time, why don’t we evaluate the Church’s stance toward Jews on effectiveness rather than on how well it assuages our collective guilt about pogroms or makes us feel great for all getting along? That is to say, is the current hyper-complimentary stance toward Jews and Judaizing bringing Jews to Christ? I don’t know the statistics. I don’t know how many Jews leave a papal visit or Catholic-Jewish dialogue with the necessary seed planted that leads them into the Church. Still, my sneaking suspicion is that these endeavors parallel our ecumenical strategies of the last 40 years. On the one hand, many people’s hearts were softened and made more capable of accepting the Truth from Catholics who no longer acted like the “enemy,” while at the same time many people were led into false complacency by the message they heard (even when that may not have been the intended meaning) that they were just great as they were – conversion is so passe! The late Cdl. Dulles thought that the time for focusing on shared beliefs and values had now passed, because we’d run out of them. It’s time, he said, to put our differences back into the spotlight. With that new perspective on ecumenical and interreligious relations, I very much question the pastoral wisdom of papal visits to non-Catholics. When the popes schedule time in their international travels for visits to synagogues (and mosques and Protestant churches, for that matter), they are taking that face time away from Catholics who could be fed by it. So we have to ask – are more Jews (or whoever is being visited) coming to Christ and His Church because of this visit, or has it become a photo-op that lets us feel good about how irenical and modern we are now? Are the popes’ words being taken seriously by their audiences, or are those individuals just relishing the fact that they landed such a prestigious thinker? I don’t think the above article takes these sorts of questions seriously, but these are precisely the things that ought to shape our relations with non-Catholics.

  • Simone Ellin

    Just wanted to let everyone know that the exhibition referred to in Joanna Bogle’s article will open in Baltimore, MD on September 2, 2010. The opening reception is free to the public, and will take place from 5-7p.m. The exhibition itself will be on display through December 26, 2010. For additional information, contact the Museum at 410-732-6400, or visit its website at http://www.jewishmuseummd.org

  • Sandi

    A sense of humor
    Over my almost 60 years, I have found that those who lack a sense of humor are also lacking in intelligence.
    Austin , August 11, 2010

    Austin, There is humor and there is humor. As I (no doubt unwittily) tell my children when they say “But it’s FUNNY!”, it takes more intelligence to be funny without tackiness. The humor of some jokes is not worth the cost in human dignity.

    This point is not entirely irrelevant to this topic, either. If you study the pop culture of pre-Nazi Germany, I believe you will find a genre of cartoons etc. ridiculing Jewish caricatures, some even with intelligently clever text. (No, I’m not equating scurrilous cartoons with the work of the humorists mentioned, even though there may be a common denominator of irreverence.) Perhaps the tolerance of this low-level, “clever” anti-Semitism contributed to the tolerance of worse evil. “But it’s funny” can justify just about anything…. And when it does, look out.

    That’s not to say EVERYTHING the Marx Brothers did was tacky and irreverent. Au contraire. But R.S. Newark’s point is well taken.

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