By Claudia McDonnell
Jewish and Catholic leaders met in a spirit of joy and cooperation at a 25th anniversary celebration marking the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel. The historic step began with the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which established diplomatic relations between the Church and the Jewish state. The formal opening took place June 15, 1994.
The June 19 event at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus was sponsored by the Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Dolan was one of four panelists who spoke about the significance of the agreement and its transformative effects on Catholic-Jewish relations.
“For both Jews and Christians,” he said, “humanity is on the right path when human agreements mirror the divine will, and that’s what we believe occurred a quarter-century ago, when the leaders of the government of Israel and the Church universal signed an agreement stressing reconciliation, trust, the priority of dialogue—all grounded in human rights and religious liberty.
Also serving on the panel were Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations; Ambassador Dani Dayan, consul general of the Consulate General of Israel in New York; and Adam Gregerman, associate professor of theology and religious studies and co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
It makes us Catholics in the United States proud of our Church,” the cardinal added, “and, by the way, grateful to be American citizens, as we realize that our country encouraged—well, even pestered—both sides to get this done.”
Participants noted the importance of the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate,” which revolutionized the Church’s relations with the Jewish people. Cardinal Dolan said the Fundamental Agreement “gave teeth to Nostra Aetate, no longer a mere nice-sounding document, but a mandate to action.”
The Vatican-Israel accord “inspires us to continue to dare never to be strait-jacketed by apprehensions and hesitancies of the past,” the cardinal said.
The accord was signed during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Quoting the pope’s personal secretary and “spiritual son,” Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Cardinal Dolan said “a formal agreement between Israel and the Apostolic See, mainly the exchange of diplomatic relations, was an obsession of John Paul II since the day of his election.” Cardinal Dolan said the pontiff saw it as “a final repudiation of sordid Christian anti-Semitism—and he was right.”
The moderator was Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Opening the discussion, he said, “We are true brothers and sisters forever tied together at the root, even if straddling different branches.”
Cardinal Dolan said, “I will tell you Catholics in the audience that we have no better friends than our Jewish partners.” He said the Vatican recognition of the State of Israel reflects “the profound love” of the popes since Pope St. John XXIII for Israel and the Jewish people.
Ambassador Dayan remarked that in the 1990s Israel established diplomatic relations with many countries, but none of those agreements “have the same significance as the diplomatic relations with the Holy See,” which have not only diplomatic and political significance, but also spiritual and historical significance, he added.
He cited three events which he said were significant for Christian-Jewish relations but are often overlooked: the visit of Pope Pius X with Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism; the visit by Pope Paul VI to Israel in January 1964, which Dayan called “groundbreaking”; and the visit of Pope Francis to the grave of Herzl in 2014 and the pope’s tribute there.
Archbishop Auza said “the special character of the relations between the state of Israel and the Holy See” enables them to work together in a special way to protect human life and dignity, to foster religious freedom and to oppose religious intolerance. He added that Israel and the Vatican also are committed to cooperation in “combating all forms of anti-Semitism and racism.”
Gregerman discussed the profound changes and progress in Christian thinking about the Jewish people, from seeing the Jews as rejected by God because they did not accept Jesus, to seeing the Jews as loved by God. Gregerman noted Nostra Aetate “rejects any form of hostility to Jews” and calls anti-Semitism “a sin.”
To illustrate how revolutionary these statements were, he noted that they were made only “two decades after the Holocaust, the Shoah…so this is a statement that is to be celebrated.”
Rabbi Potasnik told Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, “There is a need for a new Nostra Aetate, because now hatred confronts all of us, and all of us need to stand strong together to confront that challenge.” Asked which form of hatred he would single out as needing to be addressed, he replied, “The persecution of Christians, which we don’t talk about enough, which is ignored by too many and needs to be addressed.”
“Somebody said during the Holocaust that the tragedy was that people were silent who should have screamed, who should have shouted. We’ve got to shout. No more silence.”