Church Should Not Pursue Conversion of Jews, Pope Says

Article excerpt

Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, released March 10, makes two points with important implications for Christian/Jewish relations: He rejects the idea that "the Jews" killed Christ, and he says that that Christianity "must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews."

While the pope does not affirm a theory propounded by some theologians holding that the Jews will be saved independently of Christ, experts say, he does clearly suggest the church should not be targeting Jews for conversion efforts.

"Israel is in the hands of God, who will save it 'as a whole' at the proper time, when the number of gentiles is full," the pope writes. The historical duration of this "proper time," Benedict says, cannot be calculated.

In terms of the proper Christian attitude in the meantime, Benedict approvingly quotes Cistercian abbess and biblical writer Hildegard Brem: "The church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God."

Although Benedict stipulated in the first volume of his book that he writes as a private theologian rather than authoritatively as head of the Catholic church, his comments inevitably carry weight as indications of the way Benedict is likely to approach these questions as pope.

The question of conversion has long been among the most explosive in the arena of Catholic/Jewish relations. Perceptions in the Jewish world that Christians are targeting them for missionary efforts produce sharply negative reactions.

Benedict acknowledges that the question of "Israel's mission" in God's plan has a painful past.

"We realize today with horror how many misunderstandings with grave consequences have weighed down our history," he writes. Yet, the pope says, "the beginnings of a correct understanding have always been there, waiting to be rediscovered, however deep the shadows."

The key to that correct understanding, Benedict writes, lies in the biblical notion of the "times of the gentiles."

The charge given by Jesus to carry the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, Benedict says, implies a sequence: first the "full number" of the gentiles comes to the faith, and only then the Jews. He quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux's advice to Pope Eugene III, that "a determined time has been fixed" for the conversion of the Jews "that cannot be anticipated. …