Last month, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had revised the so-called "Good Friday Prayer for the Jews" which forms part of the Tridentine Mass, often referred to as the Latin Mass. The new version, translated from the Latin, reads: "Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men."
Several leading Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the International Jewish Committee on Inter-Religious Consultations, have strongly criticized the new wording of the prayer. However only the very small minority of Catholics who celebrate the Good Friday mass in Latin will actually hear the allegedly anti-Semitic version of the prayer.
This original version was toned down at the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council which introduced many far-reaching reforms of the Catholic Church, including replacing the Tridentine Mass with vernacular liturgies. The Good Friday Prayer then became: "Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant."
In contrast to his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who was feted for his efforts to build bridges with other religions, Benedict has succeeded in alienating members of other faiths on several occasions since he took office in 2005. He offended Muslims with a 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who described Islam as violent. Many Jews were disappointed with Benedict's 2006 visit to Auschwitz, having hoped for a stronger message on the Church's role in the Holocaust. More recently, Jewish groups criticized Benedict's meeting with a notoriously anti-Semitic Polish priest in August 2007. The latest incident is likely to further jeopardize efforts to promote Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
SPIEGEL ONLINE talked to German rabbi Walter Homolka about why he considers the prayer to be offensive and the likely damage to Catholic-Jewish relations.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Homolka, you -- and around 1,600 rabbis worldwide -- are sharply protesting the Vatican's revival of the Latin Good Friday Prayer, which reads: "Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men." Do you consider Benedict XVI to be anti-Semitic?
Walter Homolka: He is trying to focus on the specific aspects of his church -- that's his duty. But in this case he has lost his sensitivity. It is insulting to Jews that the Catholic Church, in the context of Good Friday of all things, is once again praying for the illumination of the Jews, so that we can acknowledge Jesus as the savior. Such statements are made in a historical context which is closely connected with discrimination, persecution and death. Given the weight of responsibility that the Catholic Church has acquired in its history with Judaism, most recently during the Third Reich, this is completely inappropriate and must be rejected to the utmost degree.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the effect of Benedict's new version of the Latin phrase?
Homolka: He indicates that he believes that the path to salvation, even for Jews, can only go through Jesus, the savior. This opens the floodgates for the conversion of Jews. The Internet is already full of comments by conservative, right-wing Catholics who say: "Wonderful, now we finally have the signal to convert the Jews." This kind of signal has an extremely provocative effect on anti-Semitic groups. The Catholic Church does not have its anti-Semitic tendencies under control.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Benedict is encouraging anti-Semitic tendencies?
Homolka: He is accepting them, at the very least.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn't the current version of the prayer harmless compared with the original version from 1570, which was used for centuries? It suggests that the hearts of Jews are veiled, that they wander in darkness and that they are blinded and perfidious.
Homolka: I consider Benedict's version, too, to be more than unfortunately worded. He is making, on a central liturgical occasion, namely the Good Friday liturgy, a theological statement that Jews cannot help but perceive as aggressive and crass. Throughout history, Jews have repeatedly been subjected to persecution and death on Good Friday. Christians have often translated the message of Good Friday into the question: "Where are the murderers of Christ?"
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But wasn't this danger eliminated long ago?
Homolka: In 2006, the chairman of the General Rabbinical Council of Germany, Rabbi Henry Brandt, expressed himself in very clear words to (leading German theologian) Cardinal Walter Kasper. He said that any approach to the possibility of a mission by the Church to convert Jews is essentially a hostile act -- a continuation, on a different level, of Hitler's crimes against the Jews. These are strong but honest words. The Catholic Church should acknowledge the fidelity of God, who abides by his choice of the nation of Israel as his chosen people.
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