I was a young and callow rabbi serving a congregation in New Jersey, about 40 miles from New York City. It was 1960 and Thanksgiving was approaching. I had an inspirational idea: My synagogue was literally across the road from a Roman Catholic church. Why not invite the priest and his flock to join my congregation in a program--not a worship service--of Thanksgiving for the blessings of freedom in this great land? So I called the priest whom I had never met and enthusiastically told him of my idea, stressing that this would be a program without any liturgical content, confident that he would accept my invitation. I was quite wrong: The priest responded, "Rabbi, I should very much like to take you up on your offer but I cannot. You see, my bishop, Bishop Ahr of Trenton, prohibits his priests from ever entering a synagogue." I was amazed and crushed. The fact that I vividly remember that conversation after 45 years have elapsed underscores my sense of despair and the lasting impression it made on me. Imagine, a scant 15 years after the Holocaust and the Catholic Church still would not even talk to Jews or enter their houses of worship! We were just across the road from each other but we might as well have been on other sides of the world.
But that was 1960. In 1986, the Holy Father Himself, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, went to the Great Synagogue of Rome, embraced Chief Rabbi Toaff, sat with him before the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls, and chatted amiably and amicably, younger brother with his beloved older brother, as the Pope put it so warmly.
What had happened to bring about such a sea change in Catholic-Jewish relations? The answer is: Pope John XXIII, Vatican Council II and Nostra Aetate. John XXIII ascended the throne of St. Peter in 1958 after a tumultuous service as nuncio in Bulgaria and Turkey during World War II. He had witnessed the effects of the Holocaust and had worked zealously in his diplomatic capacity to save Jews by issuing critical documents and exerting moral pressure whenever possible. Undoubtedly, he was horrified by what was perpetrated in Christian Europe and was ashamed at the inactivity or complicity of Christians and churchmen in the war against the Jews. One of his first steps in his papacy was to remove the odious pro perfidis Judaeis prayer from the Good Friday service. When approached by the frail, scholarly Holocaust survivor, Professor Jules Isaac, who argued that Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism had prepared the soil for the Holocaust, John XXIII was impressed and moved. He convened Ecumenical Council Vatican II in 1962 in order to foster aggiornamento, the updating of the Roman Catholic Church. …