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Hanspeter Heinz {*}

In that Way the Church Must not Pray!

A New Good Friday Intercession in the Old Spirit


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2008, P. 228-231
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Good Friday Intercession "For the Jews" promulgated by the Pope on 4 February, two days before Ash Wednesday, triggered violent protests by Jews and Christians. Because of its inconsistencies and the possibilities to misunderstand it the new intercession cannot be improved. It must be withdrawn.


Half a year ago Pope Benedict had significantly extended the permission to celebrate the preconciliar "Tridentine Rite" after the missal of 1962, in order to reconcile the small group of traditionalists with the church, partly to prevent its splitting off partly to undo it. He has never made a secret of the fact that he is a lover of the old Latin rite. In letters and public statements Jews and Catholics and the German Bishops' Conference too had asked to provide mandatorily the after the Council newly written intercession for the Jews also for the old Latin mass. For in the traditional intercession the church's unchristian enmity against the Jews is reflected, which had been condemned by the Council. The Pope unfortunately did not fulfil that request (see HK, in March 2008, 117 f.; April 2008, 194). This arouses the conjecture that making allowances for the traditionalists is more important for him than to show consideration towards the Jews.

Instead, the Pope has written an intercession of its own for the "Tridentine Rite". The first sentence, which has become a stumbling block, reads, "Let us also pray for the Jews: that our God and Lord illumine their hearts, so that they recognize Jesus Christ as the Saviour of all people." The prayer continues, "Almighty eternal God, you want all people to be saved and to get knowledge of the truth, graciously grant that, with the fullness of peoples entering into your church, all Israel may be saved. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen." But what is so bad in this prayer - particularly since also this year on Good Friday in almost all Catholic services the liturgy was celebrated in the postconciliar rite in which the intercession for the Jews reads very different?


The Topic 'Missionizing the Jews' is Present as Dangerous Memory

With the subject "missionizing the Jews", even if that word does not occur in the intercession of Benedict XVI, at once old fears are awakened among the Jews. When the speech is about their "conversion to Jesus Christ" exactly that point is hit where their nerves are on edge, where a historic trauma with all its horrors is brought back. For the Good Friday intercession has a more than thousand-year, bitter history. The Christians' pious prayer was at the same time an insult to the Jews who in the prayer were called blind and obdurate, disloyal resp. unbelieving (perfidia). Furthermore in the Middle Ages there were downright curfews for Jews in the Holy Week, because Christian preachers so violently accused the Jews as murderers of God that it was dangerous for them to leave their homes.



From the Middle Ages up to the 19th century hard humiliations and dangerous acts of violence after the Good Friday church service were the consequences.

These events are admittedly past but by no means forgotten. They are preserved in the collective memory of the Jews. That is why the Good Friday liturgy and in particular the intercession for the Jews are for all time a liturgical place where highest sensitivity is required. Indeed, with the issue 'missionizing the Jews' even the catastrophe of the Shoah is present as dangerous memory.


No Appreciation of Israel's Dignity

On 9 March 2006 Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's responsible representative for the relations with the Jews, met in Berlin for the first time with the German Rabbis' Conference. At the subsequent ceremony Henry Brandt, the chairman of the General Rabbis' Conference, took up in his speech the issue with dramatic clarity: "Mr. Cardinal, you have raised the topic of mission. I do not want to go into that question, but it must be noted that especially in Germany the 'missionizing the Jews' is for the Jews like a red rag to the bull. Here in particular, every idea, every hint of the possibility of a 'missionizing the Jews' is as good as a hostile act, a continuation of Hitler's atrocities against the Jews on a different level. This is hard but honestly said, because so it is felt by us. That is why the rejection of missionizing us Jews must be radical and unreserved. That does of course not mean that Christians and Jews were not obliged under conditions of freedom to give testimony of their faith. This includes inevitably also the risk that the testimony could encourage someone, as it were, to change sides. In a free society this risk must be accepted."

Today the Jews no longer fear a violent action of the church. But they regard also the "soft form" of 'missionizing the Jews' as fatal, because the conversion to Christianity would not extinguish the Jews as a people but the Jewish religion. Because of that the by Pope Benedict anew formulated prayer, God may illumine the hearts of Jews so that they say 'yes' to Jesus Christ, must be understood by them as a threat to their age-old faith in God. Admittedly a few days after the intercession had been published without any comment Kasper said the prayer expressed the "eschatological hope of the Church": that at the end of history all people recognize Jesus Christ as their Saviour. But to do justice to the protest of the Jews it had also expressly to be declared - and that in the name of the Pope - that the Church leaves the initiative to God himself and does not ask the Jews to believe in Jesus Christ and to enter into the church. But that has not happened. Thus the éclat was clearly foreseeable.

The by Pope Paul VI renewed Good Friday liturgy in the sense of the Council, did not awake such fears. It reads since 1970 in the version of the German Missal of 1975:

"Let us also pray for the Jews, to whom God, our Lord has spoken first. He may keep them in faithfulness to his covenant and in the love of his name, so that they may reach the aim to which his will wants to lead them.
Almighty and eternal God, you have given your promise to Abraham and his children. Listen to your church's prayer for the people that you made first your own: Let it arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

The difference is obvious: On the one hand in this prayer the Church clearly expresses its appreciation for Israel's dignity, God's chosen people, with which God made a covenant that he has never terminated nor will ever terminate, as the Council states with the Apostle Paul (Nostra aetate 4; Rom 9, 4 and 11, 29). On the other hand the prayer says that the Jews live in the loyalty to God's covenant and in the love of his name, hence they are already on the way of salvation. The church asks that God may lead them also to the goal of redemption.

In this intercession nothing is said about the Jews' faith in Jesus Christ as a condition for their salvation. This is not even necessary, because the Church can be confident that God will save the Jews through the loyalty to their covenant with God. This trust can not only be based on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans but also on the Sermon on the Mount, which states: "Not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 7, 21). "With it the congregation of St. Matthew recognises that there is a salvation in the loyalty to the Torah, which does not need to refer to Jesus. That is why the hope of the accomplished salvation more unites Jews and Christians than that the Christian Jesus interpretation separates them" (Jews and Christians in Germany. Responsible fellowship in a pluralistic society. Declaration of the Round Table "Jews and Christians" at the Central Committee of German Catholics, April 13, 2005, 22).


A Prayer Unsuitable for Liturgy

In contrast to the prayer of Benedict XVI the prayer of Paul VI corresponds to the letter and spirit of Nostra aetate 4: "The church [expects] the day that only God knows, on which all peoples call with one voice upon the Lord and serve him 'shoulder to shoulder' (Zeph 3, 9)." This sophisticated formulation is no compromise but the result of the great debate about the third text version on 28/29 September 1964.



The declaration of the Church's eschatological hope of its uniting with Israel was to exclude perfectly clearly the misconception that the Jews would be asked to abandon their religion (see Johannes Oesterreicher in: The Second Vatican Council. Documents and comments. Lexicon for Theology and Church, 2nd edition, Volume II supplements, Freiburg 1967, 439-447, here 439).

As introduction to the revised text Oesterreicher stressed, "With it even the hint of ambiguity, as if the belief in the coming world of unity was only a hidden call for the 'missionizing the Jews', is avoided" (456). Since that unambiguity is missing in Benedict's prayer it sows new embarrassment in the advanced Christian-Jewish dialogue: Do the Christians perhaps ultimately want to convert us to Christianity by hope and prayer, expectations and testimony?


Rome's Answer Leaves All Questions Unanswered

Since the publication of the new intercession without comment disappointment, hurting, protests and inquiries how the author wants the text to be understood have not come to rest. Benedict XVI does not want, as Kasper has publicly declared, to withdraw his intercession in favour of that of Paul VI, which has also been approved of by the Jews. Only an authentic declaration resp. clarification by the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had repeatedly been announced, but has not taken place until Good Friday. Only two weeks later, on 4 April the official communiqué appeared.

It is difficult to reconcile this two-month silence with the love which the Pope in his first encyclical so convincingly described as the foundation and centre of Christianity. One would have rather expected that he asked for the Jews' forgiveness, because he has inflicted on his brothers - and the Jews are our elder brothers" (John Paul II) - such a painful wound and since then leaves them to their own devices. Such a gesture would correspond to the interpretation of the Lord's word (see Mt 5, 23 f) in his Jesus book: "You cannot go up to God without becoming reconciled with your brother; to forestall him in the gesture of reconciliation, to go to meet him is the prerequisite of a right worship of God" (Jesus of Nazareth, Freiburg 2007, 192).

But with asking for forgiveness alone it would not be done. For the prayer formulated anew by the Pope is an unsuccessful text, because it is misleading and in itself contradictory. Only through a violent interpretation the gaps could be closed and the opposites straightened out.

When Kasper for example explains the prayer expressed in a theologically correct way the eschatological hope of the church, as the quotation from St Paul clearly showed, the rescue attempt cannot convince. For on the one hand that interpretation of the first sentence about the acknowledgement of Jesus as saviour of the world cannot be taken from it, it can at most be read into it; on the other hand in the second sentence the eschatological quote in Rom 11, 25 f. is turned into a historical statement by the Pope. For the "entry of the fullness of the nations into the church" is a historical process, whereas St. Paul's word speaks about the entrance of the peoples in the kingdom of God, that is about the end or the completion of history.

With the Church's proclamation that Jesus has come as Saviour for the salvation of the whole world and that he will return at the end of history as the in the Scripture promised Messiah the Jews can live in accordance with the well-known saying of the religious philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1925): "Whether Jesus was the Messiah will become apparent when the Messiah comes."

But they cannot live with the request or invitation that they had to convert to Jesus Christ and believe in him for the sake of their salvation. Because the necessity of conversion would not recognize their covenant with God as perfect path to salvation but would depreciate it as insufficient, what in the end would even question God's reliability.


The Problem is the Pope's Silence

These and other irritating questions which are listed in the opinion of the Round Table "Jews and Christians" at the Central Committee of German Catholics of 29 February 2008 (, make the new intercession unsuitable for the liturgy. For the text clearly contradicts the instruction of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, " The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people's powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34).

The new intercession, however, is because of its inconsistencies and ambiguity not improvable. It must be withdrawn. But the Pope is not ready to do that, although he has been urgently requested to do it from many sides, by Christians and Jews, including the German Bishops Conference.

The Pope's long silence led some cardinals and German bishops before Easter to public opinions. The first is the Aachen Bishop Heinz Mussinghoff, Head of the Sub-Commission for the Relations with Judaism, who said he himself was "unhappy with the wording" and hoped for clarifying discussions with the rabbis in Germany as soon as possible.



He was seconded a month later in the Mainz church newspaper (6 April 2008) by Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the strongest promoter of the relations with the Jews among the German bishops. But instead of dealing with the matters in question he only warned appeasingly against excessive accusations. Kasper, however, has taken a stand by arguing in detail. In a whole-page contribution in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (20 March 2008) he tries theologically to justify the new intercession, but unfortunately he does neither deal with the question which suggests itself why the Pope did not decide in favour of the formulation of Paul VI nor with other objections.


In Thoughts, Words and Works Stand up for the once Maltreated Older Brothers

While Kasper interpreted the intercession as belief in the Church's eschatological hope, the fulfilment of which was only a matter of God and therefore rejected any form of 'missionizing the Jews', Lehmann only wrote, "With the best will of the world I cannot discover an appeal, not even to an indirect 'missionizing the Jews'". The Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, however, published in the English magazine "The Tablet" on 29 March 2008 with reference to the New Testament's writings, which he immediately transferred to the present, as a plea for 'missionizing the Jews'.

And what did Bertone say, the official spokesman of the Pope, in the communiqué of 4 April about it? Nothing - except for a reaffirmation of the Pope's loyalty to the Second Vatican Council. The Church's attitude to the Jews had not changed. The Pope let announce by Bertone: The text remains; no answers will be given to questions. Why, for example, the Latin version of Paul VI's generally accepted intercession is not taken over into the extraordinary rite? Has the prayer with Kasper consistently to be understood eschatologically? Or does Schönborn's interpretation correspond to the Pope's opinion? Not a word about what the Pope's view is on the postconciliar documents. They are just as little mentioned as in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" of 1993.

The problem is therefore the silence of the Pope, who is watching all the divergent interpretations. It is true though that this use of papal power, against which there is in the constitution of the Catholic church no effective appeal, has very much damaged the papal authority. So what are you to do, if not resign or retire deeply hurt?

As serious and lasting as the current disturbance from Rome may be, it is nevertheless for me and many Jewish and Christian friends no sufficient reason to question in principle the 40-year-old work on a trust-worthy and now widely resilient relationship between Jews and Christians. Despite stumbling blocks it is necessary to go ahead on the chosen path! Cultivation of relations, discussion and theological work must continue. In any case, at the Osnabrück Catholic Day in May a forum on the controversy about the Good Friday intercession will take place. (In the run-up to the Katholikentag the volume "... damit sie Jesus Christus erkennen" - die neue Karfreitagsfürbitte in der Diskussion [so that they recognize Jesus Christ - the new Good Friday intercession in the discussion], Freiburg 2008 is published by Rabbi Walter Homolka and the Münster exegete Erich Zenger - with 15 Jewish and Catholic contributions.)

The Good Friday intercession for the Jews has over many centuries centrally represented the unspeakable disregard of God's permanent covenant with his first chosen people, and in the worst periods it has perverted Jesus' reconciling sacrifice on the Cross into an appeal to fight the Jews. At the latest since the findings of the Second Vatican Council it becomes every Pope well unambiguously to teach the people of God to stand up in thoughts, words and works for the once maltreated elder brothers in God's covenant and to show reverent respect to them. That this always happens, "let us pray!"


    {*} Hanspeter Heinz (born in 1939) is emeritus professor of pastoral theology at the University of Augsburg. He leads the Round Table "Jews and Christians" at the Central Committee of German Catholics.


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