Controversy over Good Friday prayer flares up again

English and Welsh bishops recently asked that the Extraordinary Form Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews be amended.

Pope Francis’ visit on Sunday, January 17 to Rome’s major synagogue was the latest in a series of recent events highlighting Catholic/Jewish relations. On that occasion—Francis’ first visit to the synagogue as pope—he stated that Catholics and Jews share “a unique and particular bond, in virtue of the Jewish roots of Christianity: Jews and Christians must therefore considers themselves brothers, united in their God and a rich common spiritual patrimony, on which to build on and to continue building the future.”

Last month, on December 10, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released a new document calling for Catholics not to actively seek the conversion of Jews. The document marked the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate on the Catholic-Jewish relations. Entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the document was introduced at a press conference at which Cardinal Kurt Koch, the chairman of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, shared the podium with Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee.

The Vatican document emphasizes the Jewish roots of Christian faith, and stresses that God first revealed himself to the Hebrews. “The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views,” the document said. “Although Jews cannot believe in Jesus Christ as the universal redeemer, they have a part in salvation, because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. How that can be possible remains an unfathomable mystery in the salvific plan of God.” In concrete terms “this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Nevertheless, the Vatican statement encourages Christians to “bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ to Jews” but “in a humble and sensitive manner.”

Rabbi Rosen welcomed the new statement, expressing satisfaction with the forthright statement that Catholics should not engage in programmatic efforts to convert Jews. “You could deduce it from Nostra Aetate, you could deduce it from subsequent comments, but I don’t think it’s ever been written down explicitly this way,” he said.

But for others, including senior emissaries of the Catholic hierarchy, the Church has not gone far enough to address elements deemed offensive to the Jews. For example, following the lead of the German bishops, the English and Welsh bishops recently asked for the Good Friday prayer for Jews in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite to be amended, as reported in the November 24, 2015 edition of the Catholic Herald.

Archbishop Kevin McDonald, who chairs the British bishops’ committee for relations with Jews, said that the prayer composed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 asking God to enlighten the hearts of the Jewish people “that they acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Savior of all men” has “caused great confusion and upset in the Jewish community.” In particular, the British bishops said that the prayer should be revised to reflect the understanding of relations between Catholics and Jews that is set forth in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.

Despite the changes already made by Benedict XVI when he liberalized the celebration of Mass in the older form with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the prayer remains different from the Novus Ordo version introduced after the Second Vatican Council, the bishops contend. Whereas the previous version of the prayer had included references to the “blindness” of Jewish people and their “immersion in darkness,” the text introduced after Vatican II reads: “Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.”

This covenant, in Archbishop McDonald’s words, is “a Covenant which—as St John Paul II made clear in 1980—has not been revoked. By contrast the prayer produced in 2008 for use in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy reverted to being a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.” In his opinion, amending the 2008 prayer “would be important both for giving clarity and consistency to Catholic teaching and for helping to progress Catholic-Jewish dialogue.”

But Felipe Alanís Suárez, the president of FIUV (Latin acronym for International Una Voce Federation, more commonly known as Una Voce, an international association of Catholic lay people attached to and promoting the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), is not of the same opinion. In a media statement dated Thursday, December 3, 2015, Suárez noted that “it was to avoid misunderstandings of the Prayer for the Jews that Pope Benedict XVI composed the 2008 version of the prayer, which is clearly based on what is essential to Christianity: the acceptance of Christ as the saviour of the whole world, and the desire that all persons be saved.” Therefore, he stated, “Jews are mentioned because of their special role in the history of salvation, and the special concern we must have for our ‘elder brothers’ (as Pope St John Paul II called them).” As a result, the statement further read, “the prayer looks forward to the incorporation of the Jewish people, of which Our Lord Jesus Christ and His first disciples were all members, in the salvation won for the human race by Christ on the Cross, a reconciliation which, as St. Paul teaches, will be fulfilled only towards the end of history.”

FIUV is convinced that any possible continued misunderstanding regarding the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews “can be resolved in the context of the Magisterium of the Church, without veiling the treasures of our Faith,” and therefore “to ask our Lord for the grace of sharing with all our brothers the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ is an act of humility and selfless love, and a spiritual work of mercy.” FIUV also stated, “FIUV entirely rejects all hatred and hostility towards the Jewish people, and all forms of unjust discrimination.”

But there is more. In a further series of observations and background information, the statement wished to stress that this prayer “is recited, in Latin, once a year, in the small number of churches worldwide where the Good Friday Liturgy is celebrated in the Extraordinary Form,” as of a series of prayers for different categories of persons, both within and without the Church, the latter including heretics and pagans. In each case the celebrant prays for God’s graces for them, a pattern followed in the 1970 reformed Novus Ordo Missal, albeit with different words.

In fact, even though the Novus Ordo Good Friday Prayer for the Jews does not explicitly refer to Jews acknowledging Christ as Savior, other prayers in the revised liturgy do. The Novus Ordo Vespers of Easter Sunday includes the prayer: “Let Israel recognize in you the Messiah it has longed for”; the Morning Office of December 30th includes the prayer: “Christ, Son of David, fulfilment of the prophecies, may the Jewish people accept you as their awaited Deliverer [Messiah in Latin].”

Cardinal Walter Kasper and Rabbi Jacob Neusner were also quoted in the FIUV statement among those who defended the 2008 prayer. Cardinal Kasper was reported to have explained that a hope that Jews accept Christ, which may be fulfilled only by God, rather than by targeted proselytism, and eschatologically (at the end of history), is nothing more than a necessary consequence of the Christian faith.

“A sincere dialogue between Jews and Christians, in fact, is possible only, on the one hand, on the basis of a shared faith in one God, creator of heaven and earth, and in the promises made to Abraham and to the Fathers,” Cardinal Kasper was quoted as saying in L’Osservatore Romano (April 10, 2008), “and on the other, in the awareness and respect of the fundamental difference that consists in faith in Jesus as Christ and Redeemer of all men.”

Before him, the Vatican authorities who spoke out in defense of the prayer included Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, with a commentary in L’Osservatore Romano (February 15, 2008), and also the Secretariat of State, with a statement on April 4, 2008.

Among those who entered the fray and reacted to the British bishops’ request were also Joseph Shaw, president of the UK-based Latin Mass Society, and blogger Father John Hunwicke, as reported in the Catholic Herald. “It is surprising that the bishops are unhappy with a prayer composed by Pope Benedict as recently as 2008, which, like the prayer it replaced, though in more measured language, reflects the theology and imagery of 2 Corinthians 3:13-16,” Shaw was quoted as saying, while Father Hunwicke said he hoped the bishops would clarify “what exactly it is in the prayer which contradicts which precise affirmations of Nostra Aetate.”

As for Jewish leaders, they appeared to be divided. Rabbi Neusner, responding to criticisms of the 2008 Prayer for the Jews, noted that “Israel also asks God to enlighten the gentiles,” drawing a parallel with the Jews daily prayer for the conversion of “all of the impious of the earth.” Therefore, he remarked, “the Catholic prayer manifests the same altruistic spirit that characterizes the faith of Judaism” (Die Tagespost, Feb 23, 2008).

But the strongest protests was expressed by representatives of Italian Judaism, up to the point that the head rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni—the successor of rabbi Elio Toaff, who had welcomed John Paul II to the synagogue and had developed a cordial dialogue with him for years—decided to suspend plans for future meetings with the authorities of the Church of Rome. The protest was motivated by the fact that the terms of the new formula are seen as being tantamount to a call for conversion and for some Jews it is intolerable that Catholics should pray for the conversion of Israel to faith in Jesus Christ. Here is how the second part of the prayer reads: “Almighty and everlasting God, you who want all men to be saved and to reach the awareness of the truth, graciously grant that, with the fullness of peoples entering into your Church, all Israel may be saved.”

“The statement is very nice, but it has nothing to do with the subject in dispute,” Rabbi Di Segni commented in an interview in 30 Days in 2008. “What we would have liked to have heard in the statement is that the Church does not pray for the conversion of the Jews.”

The document recently released by the Vatican would seem to go exactly in this direction. “It’s a very important document because after 50 years from Nostra Aetate it is an irreplaceable summary of the progress made in recent years,” Rabbi Di Segni was quoted as saying in an interview by LaPresse news agency (December 18, 2015). It’s a starting point, he went on, a theological document whose structure is somewhat complex and therefore “it needs to be studied well in order to understand what the issues are. I reserved a pause of careful reflection on this.”

In fact, the Vatican has also made it clear that this document is not a magisterial text or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, but is a reflection prepared by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews on current theological questions that have developed since the Second Vatican Council and is intended to be a starting point for further theological discussion.


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About Alberto Carosa 38 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.