Over the nearly two thousand years it has unfolded, the relationship between the Catholic church and the Jews generally has not been very good.
It has, in fact, most often characterized by power and its abuse on one side, and powerlessness, fear, extortion, blood, torture, and death on the other.
But things change, times change, understandings change, and at times even deeply entrenched suspicions can change.
There has been a great deal of interfaith work that has mended some of the rifts between Jews and Catholics, particularly since the reforms of Vatican II in 1963, and the evident good will of Pope John XXIII and most of the pontiffs who followed him.
Still, among some of the most striking scenes at the conference that a Catholic lay outreach organization called the Neocatechumal Way held in Israel in May showed Catholics and Jews not only learning, talking, but even praying together. Videos show Jews saying the Shema as the Catholics listen reverently and some seen to join them. And that’s because the Catholics’ goal was to learn from the Jews. Not to convert them, not to coerce them, but to learn from them.
The conference — called a convivience, using the Latin root vivere, to live — brought together 400 people, about 160 of them rabbis, the rest of them Catholic clergymen, including a cardinal from Addis Ababa and another from India, and laypeople — to learn from the rabbis, who range the gamut from Orthodox to Reform, and who included such luminaries as Yitz Greenberg, the modern Orthodox rabbi who started Clal, and Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. (There were, however, no women rabbis. That would have been a bridge too far.)
The rabbis also included Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, who talked about his experiences at the four-day conference with great enthusiasm.
The conference was Rabbi Zeilicovich’s first with the Neocatechumal Way, but not his first experience with interfaith work. Rabbi Zeilicovich is from Argentina; he grew up during the time of the junta, when Argentina was controlled by the military, who shut up dissidents by such effective means as dropping them out of airplanes. Interfaith work was a good way for dissidents to get together, Rabbi Zeilicovich said, because the junta did not want to appear to be going after religious people. But out of a political need grew a genuine desire to learn more, and to study together, he said. “That’s how I came to understand the power of interfaith activities and the impact they can have on the larger society,” he said.
Rabbi Zeilicovich went to Medellin, Colombia, after he was ordained. “I gave a lot of lectures to the Roman Catholic seminary there, and participated in interfaith activities with a Franciscan priest, Francisco Lotero,” he said. “We became very good friends.” His next stop was Puerto Rico, and there “I taught Judaism at an evangelical seminary.” After that, the rabbi went to Fort Worth, “and I was part of an interfaith group that brought Jews, Roman Catholic priests, and evangelical pastors together.
“It was a very active group,” he continued. “We always had an activity — studying, talking about the common problems and challenges we all had, in churches and synagogues.” He also led two interfaith missions to Israel, working with an evangelical church.
So when the Neocatechumal Way planned this year’s convivience, its leaders decided to invite Rabbi Zeilicovich.
The Neocatechumal Way “is an attempt to bring Roman Catholic people back to the Roman Catholic church,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. It does internal outreach, in ways that will remind Jews of keruv, the outreach Jews do to try to get back unaffiliated or disaffected young people. The Neocatechumal Way, he said is evangelical in its structure and mission, but it is Catholic, not Protestant. Its leaders are lay people, often professionals, who devote their lives and dedicate their families to living in a way that exemplifies the church’s values and draws people to them — and to the church they represent.
The Neocatechumal Way is active in about 20,000 communities, mostly in Central America, Rabbi Zeilicovich said.
So where do Jews come in? Not as potential converts, Rabbi Zeilicovich said. That’s not it at all. “They claim that they cannot be good Christians if they don’t know Jesus better, and to know Jesus better they have to know Judaism better. Because Jesus was a Jew, he lived like a Jew, he thought like a Jew, he believed like a Jew. Therefore it is crucial for them to have a relationship with all streams of Judaism, for them to know who Jesus was spiritually.”
So that’s what the Catholics got from the Jews at the convivience. What did the Jews get from it? “We benefit from the dialogue,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “We benefit from it because the more the Roman Catholic church knows about us, the less prejudice they will have.”
It’s a new angle on an old problem, he continued. “We have not had such a good history with the Roman Catholic church, and this is a complete turnaround. It’s like when you make a hamburger, or a pancake, and you flip it over. This is exactly a 180-degree flip.”
And with that flip done, the newly turned groups can discover shared problems, much as the other interfaith groups to which he’s belonged have done. “For example, the secularization of society,” he said. “It is happening in synagogues, in Roman Catholic churches, and in other churches as well.”
The conference was held at the Domus Galilaeae, a Christian conference center overlooking the Sea of Galilee on the hill known to Christians as the Mount of Beatitudes. All the food was kosher. “All the Roman Catholics who were there ate only kosher food,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. The Neocatechumal Way’s founder, Kiko Arguello, wrote a symphony called “The Sufferings of the Innocent,” in which “he put together the suffering of the Jews in the concentration camps and the sufferings of Jesus,” he continued. “Both suffered from the sin of omission — nobody said anything about what was happening to them. They all were innocent.”
The conference opened and closed by everyone who knew the song singing “Hine may tov” — how good it is when brothers can sit together.”
According to Rabbi Zeilicovich, brothers can and should and even at times do sit together, and when they do the world is made a bit better.