ELIZABETH BELL asks for a fuller implementation of Nostra Aetate (On the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), published 30 years ago this week.
IHAD MY FIRST experience of anti-semitism when I was seven or eight years old. Our teacher read to us, from The Six O'Clock Saints, the story of Little St Hugh of Lincoln, murdered, allegedly, by Jews.
I was an imagjnative child and afterwards, when walking through tenement blocks on my way to school, I thought that I was walking through a ghetto and quickened my pace.
This was not the only negative reference to the Jews. In the readings at Sunday Mass I often heard of them trying to bring about the downfall of Jesus or his followers, who would even hide themselves away "for fear of the Jews". The Jews' worst crime was to persuade Pilate to release Barabbas instead of Jesus and then to call God's judgment down not only on themselves but upon their innocent children. I firmly believed in their responsibility for Christ's death but my child's sense of justice made me feel that it was frighteningly unfair for unborn generations to have to answer for the sins of their ancestors.
However, one Saturday morning, I was walking with my mother along a road crowded with shoppers when I saw, on the opposite side of the road, a group of welldressed families walking purposefully past the shops. I asked my mother who they were and she told me that they were Jews and they they were known to be very good to their old people. My mother's reply, I believe, uprooted the seeds of anti-semitism that had already taken root in my heart.
My next encounter with Jews came when, alone in the house, I watched a television documentary about the concentration camps. Until that moment in1956 I had had no knowledge of the Holocaust, but from that moment on I had an active interest in Jews, their relationship to God and to ourselves. As my knowledge of the Scriptures increased, so did my conviction that God had not, and would not, abandon the people he had called to be his own. "Though a mother might forget the child of her womb, yet will I not forget thee, Israel."
In 1965 I joined the novitiate of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion and there had the wonderful experience of hearing, with my fellow novices, the Pope's declaration that the Jews, as a people, must never again be held responsible for the death of Christ. When I left the novitiate, I married a Jew — each one of us keeping to our own faith, in so far as that was possible — and our children following my faith, while learning to love and respect the traditions of their father.
Maybe I was naive in those early post-conciliar days to expect the wonderfully clear vision of the actual relationship between Christian and Jews to filter rapidly through to parish level but there were hopeful signs, such as parish Passover meals on Maundy Thursday and teaching in our schools about Jewish practice and belief.
As our children moved through the education system and I became a Catholic headteacher, I realised that this improvement in our understanding was patchy and sometimes superficial. At times we, as a family, experienced prejudice and eventually began to avoid churches in which we knew we would be wounded (and angered) by the sermons.
Outside our Catholic community, I became aware that anti-semitism was increasing: on occasion, Jewish school children were spat at and jeered at and anti-semitic jokes were increasing in frequency and unpleasantness. The political situation in Israel gave people an excuse to vent their dislike of the Jews.
Thirty years after the Vatican Council declaration, I found it unbearable to sit through scriptural readings which seemed to pinpoint the Jews as the killers of Christ and yet went uninterpreted by the clergy.
In L'Osservatore Romano (I July, 1985), notes were given for "the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis" for all those concerned in Catholic teaching.
TE COMMISSION for Religious Relations with the Jews did not only recommend that Christians should learn about Jewish custom and belief as something that would enrich our knowledge of our our own faith but was most specific in recognising that we should have "a pastoral concern for a still living reality". Yet, not long ago, I listened to a young priest preach about the veil of the
temple being rent and God's promise being taken from the Jews and given to the Christians. In1980, the Holy Father, speaking at Mainz, referred to "the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked".
Whereas the Passover can be of interest to Catholics because of the light it throws on the Catholic liturgy, such interest is not enough to deepen our understanding of Judaism for its own sake. If we are to avoid the damaging effects of a priest, carried away by his desire to make the Gospel come to life, describing the Jews surrounding the woman taken in adultery as carrying their usurers' bags, we must beware of catechesis which is "poor in quality and lacking in precision".
Priests and people who feel that, whatever the Vatican Council says, the Jews did kill Christ (and I have heard this on more than one occasion), should study the Guidelines which say: "It cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favourable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect ChristianJewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for Christians today."
Although Holy Week homilies are unlikely to contain any material which condemns the Jews, the care that we are urged to take "when preparing catechesis and homilies" is seldom shown. It is not enough to refrain from saying anything anti-semitic. It is our duty to explain any references to Jews in the Gospels which might seem to condemn them.
The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews knows only too well that antisemitism still exists and said, in 1985, that "the urgency and importance of precise, objective and rigorous teaching on Judaism for our faithful follows too from the danger of antisemitism which is always ready to reappear under different guises. The question is not merely to uproot from among the faithful the remains of antisemitism still to be found here and there, but much rather to arouse in them, through educa tional work, an exact knowledge of the wholly unique bond which joins us, as a Church, to the Jews and Judaism."
The Pope, speaking to Jewish leaders in Miami in1987 said: "It is also desirable that, in every diocese, Catholics should implement, under the direction of the Bishops, the statement of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent instructions issued by the Holy See regarding the correct way to preach and teach about the Jews and Judaism."
My 16-year old daughter has "Jew, Jew" called after her on her way home from school and was recently told: "With a nose like yours, we can see where you go to school". We were all distressed, especially when she said that she no longer feels quite safe in this country. I urge anybody who is involved in catechesis at any level to do their best to put the words of the Church into action. We must try to ensure that "the Jews and Judaism do not occupy an occasional and marginal place in catechesis: their presence there is essential and should be organically integrated."