What’s in a prayer?
Janis Siegel JTNews Correspondent
Roman Catholic Rev. Phillip Renczes has a dream, one he shares with the current Pope Benedict XVI: To break down barriers between world religions and the Catholic Church and to further Jewish-Catholic relations.
Yet a small, optional passage the pope recently added to a traditional prayer in the Catholic Good Friday mass that prays for the Jews to remain faithful to God but also prays for them to be “enlightened,” is getting little acceptance from church leadership around the world. It also ignited a spirited “Jewish-style” debate at a midday meeting between Renczes, a world-renowned papal scholar, and the local Jewish groups who invited him to Temple De Hirsch Sinai for an informal interfaith dialogue.
The meeting organized by the American Jewish Committee’s Seattle office, TDHS, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University drew a group of 20 who fired questions at the scholar without reservation.
Rose Rosenwach, who co-chairs the Seattle AJC’s international relations committee, asked Renczes to consider the newly amended prayer in the reverse, and whether he’d like to hear that Christians should be enlightened toward someone else’s religion.
“It seems like a step in the opposite direction and makes people pause and take, perhaps, a step back,” said Rosenwach. “I was raised more in the philosophy of ‘live and let live.’”
“From a theological point of view, it is very difficult for Christians — Catholics — to say that our relationship with Judaism should be defined by live and let live because, somehow, it’s just not a reality,” replied Renczes.
“Sooner or later, a Christian gets into this identity crisis with Judaism, because all the time he goes back to his foundational texts it says otherwise,” he added. “If you force a Catholic to think that way it creates a dichotomy to his own traditional texts. Either Christians become viciously anti-Jewish or they become somewhat relativistic and say, ‘Whatever.’ We need to discuss this relationship with Judaism.”
Renczes, director of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, also teaches dogmatic and patristic theology to students from across the globe. The school offers classes in Jewish theology and Jewish texts that Renczes said he wants to make a mandatory part of the curriculum. His students, he said, become confused as to what the church authority is really teaching.
Renczes posited a hypothetical answer to the group in a very Jewish way — in the form of a question.
“Basically,” he asked, “is it that there is one way to salvation, or is it that there are various ways to salvation, or let’s say, at least, two? This is a very hot-potato topic within Catholic theology.”
Mark Markuly, the dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, where Renczes is also a visiting scholar for the summer, agreed with the reverend, saying the reaction from church leaders has been guarded, at best.
“I’ve noticed there’s been an increasing anxiety about what’s been going on in the Catholic Church since Vatican II,” Markuly said. “Within the average parish the liturgical changes have been extremely controversial.”
Renczes stressed that Pope Benedict’s changes are optional and are part of a wider outreach to all faiths, particularly Islam.
But Rabbi Daniel Weiner, senior rabbi at TDHS, is not convinced that the new prayer language as set forth by Pope Benedict is a change that many Jews will welcome.
“Vatican II, vis-à-vis the Jews, was really a sea change and Benedict seems to be pulling back on that a little bit in terms of pronouncements and even liturgy,” Weiner told JTNews. “It diminished and diluted the advances of Vatican II.”
Weiner also said that “offline,” many traditional Catholic leaders are trending toward a more conservative traditionalist direction for the future church due to several factors, including the growing conservative Catholic base in the Southern hemisphere.
AJC Seattle’s regional director, Wendy Rosen, anticipating future dialogues with Renczes as part of her organization’s ongoing interfaith efforts with the Catholic Church, was optimistic.
“Although there have been recent bumps in Catholic-Jewish relations, these missteps should not prevent us from seeing the positive trajectory that Pope Benedict has sustained and expanded,” Rosen wrote in an email following the event, “including both his state visit to Israel and his visit to the Rome synagogue.”
Still, many bishops, said Renczes, will also not use this version of the prayer.
“I think that this question with regard to the significance of Jesus Christ in regard to other religions is so big that one has to be patient and understanding,” he told JTNews. “There are very few bishops that would pull away from Vatican II. They are afraid of moving this dialogue forward. We have to see how these fears articulate and try, more so with certain trust-building strategies, to address them.”