Catholicism and Judaism: A Few Personal Reflections

By Costigan, Michael | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Catholicism and Judaism: A Few Personal Reflections


Costigan, Michael, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


Lacking credentials to speak with authority about Catholic and Jewish relations, I am nevertheless honoured by the invitation to contribute some reflections to this publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Nostra Aetate declaration, one of the Second Vatican Council's most significant and epoch-changing documents. I will confine myself to a few memories about times in my life when there was some personal connection with the Jewish world.

Growing up in a Melbourne Catholic family with Irish and Scottish backgrounds, I had little occasion to meet or know many Jews. My father, a part-time tax accountant, did include among his clients a successful Jewish manufacturer of chocolates who often generously shared some of the fruits of his industry with us delighted children. I also recall our and his families socialising a few times on Mentone beach during summer holidays. But there was no religious element in this fondly remembered association.

During my seminary course in Rome in the 1950s I studied the Hebrew language in preparation for biblical studies, but our courses in theology, church history and sacred scripture, without being notably hostile to Judaism, did not prepare us for the Vatican Council challenging the acceptability of certain past Catholic attitudes and actions. At the same time, living in Rome during Pius XII's pontificate gave us the chance to learn something of the still recent Holocaust and to visit sites like the Ardeatine Caves, where local Jews were numbered among the victims of a Nazi massacre in 1944.

In 1959 I did have the precious experience of spending a week in the young State of Israel. I was with a group of Rome-based priests on a study tour of the Holy Land, which had already taken us through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to the still divided city of Jerusalem. Led by the American scripture scholar Father Robert North SJ, the group included another Jesuit bible expert, Father David Stanley, the yet-tobe widely published Chicago-born author Father John Powell SJ and the Australian priest and educator Father Frank Mecham.

It was a fascinating time to be in Israel, with the legendary David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister and one of his most famous successors, Golda Meir, prominent as Foreign Minister. She had won applause from Catholics world-wide in the previous year when, at the time of Pius XII's death, she had been reported as praising him for what he did to protect Italian Jews during the Second World War. Our reception from hospitable Israeli people during our tour was warm and friendly. Only in a later period did questions about the alleged silence of the Holy See during the Holocaust intensify, while authorities in Israel were to become more critical of the position taken by popes and other Church officials on the question of a Palestinian State.

If I have a claim to say anything on the occasion of this anniversary it could derive from the fact that, in 1963, while reporting in Rome on Vatican II for the Catholic press as an accredited priest-journalist, I happened to be a witness to the early stages of Nostra Aetate's gestation. Hearing Cardinal Bea tell the Council that Pope John XXIII, recently deceased at the time of his speech, had asked him to ensure that the Council would review the Church's attitude to the Jewish faith, I, like others, became much more aware than before of the reasons why our Church needed to examine and if necessary reform its approach to the association between the two religions. And I gradually became more conscious of the desirability of a repudiation by the Council of certain centuries-old Catholic attitudes, policies and actions.

What was heard in the Council hall that autumn was reinforced by information supplied in outside conversations, lectures and media conferences by expert conciliar participants or advisers. Among them were some working with Cardinal Bea in his Unity Secretariat. …

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