There was no mistaking the sense of occasion when the Catholic archbishop of
Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, delivered his first address to the city's Jewish
community last week. Hundreds came to hear him, including the heads of Boston's
leading Jewish organizations, rabbis from every Jewish denomination, and media
secular and sectarian.
The cardinal didn't say anything controversial or unexpected. No one imagined he
would. He expressed strong support for Catholic-Jewish cooperation, emphasized
Christianity's Jewish roots, and spoke feelingly about the Christian obligation
to fight anti-Semitism. All familiar themes. So why all the attention and
After all, it has been more than 40 years since the Catholic Church adopted
Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"), its landmark declaration condemning anti-Semitism
and repudiating the centuries-old teaching that Jews were eternally cursed for
the death of Jesus. It has been 20 years since Pope John Paul II embraced Rabbi
Elio Toaff in the Great Synagogue of Rome and extolled Jews as the "elder
brothers" of Christians. Over the last few decades, Catholic-Jewish dialogue and
reconciliation have become such prominent features on the religious landscape
that anyone who came of age in the 1970s or later could be forgiven for assuming
that Catholic anti-Semitism had always been limited to the crackpots on the
That's true even in a city like Boston, which in the 1930s and '40s was
intensely anti-Semitic -- so much so that by 1943, violent attacks on Jews and
vandalism of Jewish property were reported to be "an almost daily occurrence."
Mayor James Michael Curley called Boston "the strongest Coughlin city in
America" a reference to Father Charles Coughlin, the Jew-hating Michigan
priest who broadcast his poison over the nation's airwaves and whose
anti-Semitic paper, "Social Justice," was hawked on the steps of Boston's
Today, that entrenched Catholic anti-Semitism has all but vanished, swept away
by the revolution that Nostra Aetate launched.
In a city where priests once refused to condemn the beating of Jews, Catholic
clergy now go to great lengths to promote interfaith understanding. Boston
College, a leading Catholic university, is home to the Center for
Christian-Jewish Learning, which is committed to nurturing relationships between
Christians and Jews that are based "not merely on toleration but on full respect
and mutual enrichment." On the website of the Boston Archdiocese is a wealth of
material on Catholic-Jewish relations; one recommended resource is an online
study guide to "Nostra Aetate" prepared by the Anti-Defamation League a
Jewish organization with which the archdiocese has an active partnership.
This change in the church's attitude toward Jews has been extraordinary, and
O'Malley made a point of underscoring its theological significance and
permanence. "It is for us Catholics a part of our response to G-d," he said.
"Hence there can never be a question of retreating from Nostra Aetate."
But, he acknowledged, not everyone has gotten that message.
He told a story from his days as a young priest working with immigrants in
Washington, D.C., when some members of the Anti-Defamation League came to see
him about anti-Semitism in the Hispanic community. Impossible, O'Malley told
them. These immigrants came from remote villages in El Salvador and most of them
had never met a Jew. They would have no reason to think ill of Jews. "I assured
the men that they were barking up the wrong tree, and sent them off with a
A few days later, at a meeting with parishioners to make plans for Holy Week,
O'Malley was dumbfounded when one man proposed to celebrate Holy Saturday with
la quema del judio the burning of the Jew. "Although Spanish is almost my
first language," he recalled the other night, "I had him repeat the phrase two
or three times, such was my disbelief and horror." In many Central American
villages, it turned out, there was a custom of marking the day before Easter by
hanging an effigy of Judas and blowing it up with fireworks: the burning of the
O'Malley vetoed the proposal. Then he called the ADL and asked for help in
educating his parishioners. The result was a Passover seder conducted in
Spanish, to which everyone in the parish was invited on Holy Thursday following
the Mass of the Lord's Supper.
"The whole community was fascinated to see the connection between the seder meal
and the Eucharist," O'Malley said. "After that, no one ever asked again to burn
Remarkable as the transformation of recent decades has been, it will take more
time than that to scrub away the stain left by the 1,900 years that preceded
them. Against the long sweep of Christian history, and the even longer sweep of
Jewish history, the 40 years since Nostra Aetate have been but a brief, blessed
moment. It is too soon to take it all for granted. Too soon to be nonchalant
about the teaching of brotherhood that replaced the teaching of contempt. That
is why Cardinal O'Malley's speech commanded such interest. And why the finest
thing about it was that none of it came as a surprise.