A recent interfaith gathering in Israel between Catholic and Jewish clergy invigorated Rabbi Lewis John Eron, a local rabbi.
The spirit of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican document developed 50 years ago that revised the way the Catholic Church views Jews, is alive and well.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at a four-day gathering of some 150 rabbis and 130 churchmen — priests, bishops and cardinals — from all over the world in Israel at Domus Galilaeae, the spiritual center of the Neocatechumenal Way located near the Sermon on the Mount.
The Neocatechumenal Way, a lay-led Catholic spiritual revival fellowship co-founded about 50 years ago by Kiko (Francisco) Argüello, a Spanish artist and musician, and Carmen Hernandez, a Spanish woman trained as a chemist, grew out of the work they were doing with poor and marginal people in Spain.
The group sponsors more than 100 seminaries and 40,000 small parish-centered groups worldwide. Its goal is to help Catholics deepen their understanding of their faith and provide those overwhelmed by life’s difficulties and suffering with the message of God’s love.
Although the Neocatechumenal Way has received approval by the Vatican and is active in many dioceses throughout the world, like so many movements in the Catholic world, it has its detractors as well as supporters. It underscores the dynamic diversity within the Catholic world, which we often mistakenly view as monolithic.
What made the gathering — attended by several other members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia as well — so remarkable was the broad range of rabbis and churchmen from around the world.
All streams of Judaism were represented. Haredi rabbis with long black coats, long gray beards and large black hats sat down to share their feelings about prayer, God and the Jewish people’s evolving relationship with the Catholic church with Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. Priests, bishops and cardinals from parts of the world where rabbis are few had the opportunity to meet and learn from rabbis whose viewpoints cover the range of Jewish thought and opinion.
There was very little structure to the gathering. It seemed at times that the program director was the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, but we were led down a good path.
In addition to the Catholic clergy, there were some 30 lay leaders — men and women who gave up the security of jobs and position to take their families to bring the message of the Neocatechumenal Way to dioceses and parishes throughout the world.
The power of their faith was impressive. Bishops who were unsure of the role the group could play in their dioceses met with colleagues who have welcomed the Neocatechumenal Way and shared their thoughts with the rabbis they have come to know and trust over the years.
There was also a spiritual aspect of the gathering. Kiko presented a symphonic meditation of the meaning of suffering that he composed for chorus and orchestra. He drew connections within a Catholic framework between the daily sufferings of all human beings, the suffering of Mary when she witnessed the crucifixion of her son, Jesus, and the sufferings of the Jewish people, especially with the Shoah.
This moving presentation opened up many informal dialogues among the attendees on the challenges suffering presents to people and the different ways Jews and Catholics give meaning to this and other aspects of life.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Rabbi Eugene B. Korn presented thought papers on the changing nature of Jewish-Catholic relations 50 years after the appearance of the Vatican II council document, Nostra Aetate, which restructured the way Catholics were to think of all other faith traditions, most importantly the Jewish tradition.
The Neocatechumenal Way has taken the core message of Nostra Aetate to heart — that the Jewish people are their elder brothers in faith, that God’s promises to the Jewish people are everlasting, and that Christianity is grafted onto the living tree of the Jewish tradition.
This gathering reflected the Neocatechumenal Way’s desire to respond to the Vatican II directive that “mutual understanding and appreciation” between Christians and Jews “can be achieved, especially by the way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions.”
What touched me the most was the desire of Kiko and his people to seek their roots with an encounter with the people of Israel. They weren’t there to convert us but to learn from us and with us. Of course, he wanted to present his message to us and to the priests, bishops and cardinals, but the interaction between Jewish and Catholic spiritual leaders in a most beautiful part of the Holy Land in a spirit of love was the goal. In that, he succeeded, and for that I am deeply thankful.
Rabbi Lewis John Eron is the director of religious activities for Lions Gate retirement community and the Jewish community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. He is a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.