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Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer

Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer

Less than a week from now is Good Friday, a most solemn day for Christians. It is also a problem day for Jews, and for the evident Christian majority which is (or wants to be) sensitive to the sensibilities of Jews. For centuries the most painful element in the Roman Catholic liturgy came from the Good Friday litany in the Latin Rite, which began: "Let us pray for the perfidious Jews: That Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord..." There was also reference to "Jewish faithlessness" and "blindness." In 1960 an offended and thoughtful Pope John XXIII deleted "faithless" (perfidis); in 1970 the prayer was radically altered. So far, so good.

Last summer Pope Benedict XVI allowed for reversion to the world and words of pre-1970, to a 1962 Missal version of the liturgy. This act was received ambiguously by American Jewish leadership. The American Jewish Committee expressed "appreciation" for some of the papal steps forward, but the Anti-Defamation League called the pope's action "a theological setback" and a "body blow" to Catholic-Jewish relations. On February 6 the Vatican announced an emendation of the 1962 Missal.

Tradition-hungry Catholics will now pray this revision: "Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men…grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved…"

Recently I conversed with a Jewish professor of New Testament at a largely Christian theological school, and expected her to speak of "setback" and "body blow." To my surprise, she said that while all such prayers make Jews uncomfortable, given the painful history we inherit, she thought that the notion of one faith-community praying for the spread of its faith to others was not the highest offense. "Many do it." OK.

Then I chanced on this headline in the Jewish weekly Forward (February 29-March 7): CATHOLICS HAVE A RIGHT TO PRAY FOR US, above an op-ed by veteran Professor Jacob Neusner, a scholar of Judaism uncommonly informed about such matters. His main point will surprise many non-Jews and many Jews as well: "Israel prays for gentiles, so the other monotheists, the Catholic Church included, have the same right to do the same—and no one should be offended, as many have[.]"

Rabbi Neusner notes that a prayer "for the conversion of 'all the wicked of the earth,' who are 'all the inhabitants of the world,' is recited in normative Judaism not once a year, but every day." He quotes several passages from standard Jewish liturgies, which "leave no doubt that when holy Israel assembles for worship it asks God to illuminate gentiles' hearts." Prayers of both covenanted sets of people have "an eschatological focus and mean to keep the door to salvation open for all peoples. Holy Israel should object to the Catholic prayer no more than Christianity and Islam should take umbrage at the Israelite one."

Whoever thinks that in one short column even Dr. Neusner can deal with all the complexities and subtleties of the subject, or that his will be a last word—it's virtually a first, in the current context—should be ready for many rejoinders, reservations, and qualifications, because much goes on between now and the eschaton, "the fullness of time." Both sets of believers have work to do to express their hopes thoughtfully and to follow them up with empathic acts. But this first word might help make Good Friday more a day of solemn contemplation than of polemics. "It is our duty to praise…"


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