Dialogika

Jewish Documents & Statements

Notes about a crucial meeting with John XXIII

Isaac JulesOn June 13, 1960, the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac had a private audience with Pope John XXIII.  Isaac, the former Superintendent of Public Instruction in France, had after the First World War sought to use history textbooks to promote peace between France and Germany. Nonetheless, his family was killed by the Nazis during the Shoah. After World War II, he devoted himself to researching the origins of cultural and religious antisemitism. During his meeting with John XXIII, he summarized in a portfolio his research into the history of the Christian "teaching of contempt" for Jews and Judaism.

This meeting is generally credited with being a major impetus for the pope's decision to direct Cardinal Augustin Bea, on September 18, 1960, to draft a declaration on the Catholic Church's relationship to the Jewish people for the upcoming Second Vatican Council. This was the genesis of what would become Nostra Aetate. The following notes were written by Jules Isaac shortly after the audience. They were published in The SIDIC Journal 1968/3 and are available courtesy of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion.

 

I didn't go into this affair blindly. During December in Paris and in Aix I had studied the ground and found out all I could....

I had drawn up a Memo to go to the Pope, with a dossier of programs for reforming Christian teaching on Israel, an example of a theological myth ("Dispersion — divine punishment for the crucifixion"), excerpts from the Council of Trent's catechism which state that the accusation of deicide is against the true doctrine of the Church....

The French ambassador to the Vatican, who had been asked to do so by President Vincent Auriol, had officially requested an audience with the Pope, which was easily granted....

But it must be taken into account how difficult and bold was this project. The problem of Catholic teaching which I attacked is infinitely more complex than that of the liturgy. Seen from the special angle concerning Israel, it touches, if not the main ideas of faith and dogma, at least a thousand-year-old tradition, product of the Church fathers, from St. John Chrysostom to St. Augustine. From this came the necessity of combining the maximum of prudence to that of frankness in these Roman meetings. I was fully aware that it was a question of a real tour-de-force, and that I would have in certain cases a chasm to jump over....

Friday, June 10th.
... End of the afternoon with Cardinal Julien at the Great Chancery.... In appearance, a very old man, tall, shrivelled face, eyes half-closed. He listens, says practically nothing, and I speak a long time with the impression of having fallen onto another planet. One single question is posed... without any relation to what I have been saying, but which shows one of the dominating preoccupations here — "Don't you think that Communism has a great part in the actual awakening of antisemitism?" I answer, pick up again my trench work.... Towards the end I grow bold, because he now seems friendly, and ask him, "Eminence, in this kind of work, it's good to have one or two doors to knock at. Which do you think would be the ones?" He reflects and after a few instants, murmurs, "Cardinal Ottaviani." I respond, "And with Cardinal Ottaviani?" He reflects once more and breathes towards me in a murmur, "Cardinal Bea".

Sunday, June 12th.

... At the end of the day a letter from the embassy informed me that the audience would be tomorrow.... Slept little that night; got ready Note complémentaire et conclusive, in order to have maximum effectiveness in its brief form. Also prepared the essential themes to bring out. Taking into account the fact that the good John XXIII loves to talk, that the conversation could be unrestrained and take an unforeseen detour....

Monday, June 13th.
... We penetrate... to the last room before the office-library where John XXIII receives. Long wait. Someone warns us that His Holiness is tired, has been awake since midnight, that there are a great many audiences, which means that our time will be measured out....

Finally towards 1:15 our turn comes. The Pope receives us before the open door... I bow and John XXIII simply gives me his hand. I present myself as a non-Christian, promoter of the French Amitiés Judéo-chrétiennes, and as a very deaf old man. We sit down near the desk, in three arm-chairs near one another. I am beside the Pope, simplicity itself, a striking contrast with the pomp of the decor and preceding ceremony.

He does not seem tired. A simple man, round, fat, his face has strong, rugged features — a large nose, very smiling, spontaneous laughter, with a transparent regard, a little roguish, but where there is an obvious goodness that inspires confidence.

As foreseen, it's he who begins a lively conversation, speaking of his devotion to the Old Testament, the psalms, the prophets, the book of Wisdom. He speaks of his name, how he had chosen it thinking of France; he asks me where I was born.... And I, I look for a way to make the transition to the desired subject. I tell him about the great hope that his measures, so spontaneous, have awakened in the heart of the people of the Old Testament, that if we expect even more from him, isn't it he himself who is responsible because of his great goodness? This makes him laugh.

Then I try to bring out my request concerning the teaching, and first of all its historical base. But how to make someone understand, in a few minutes, what this spiritual ghetto has been in which the Church has progressively enclosed the old Israel — at the same time as the physical ghetto?...

Today there exists a purifying counter-current which grows stronger every day. However, recent inquiries have shown that "the teaching of contempt" still remains. Between these two contrary tendencies Catholic opinion is divided, remains floating. This is why it is indispensable that there be raised a voice from the highest possible level, from the "summit" — the voice of the head of the Church — to point out the right direction to everyone, and solemnly condemn "the teaching of contempt" in its anti-Christian essence.

... Then I present my Note conclusive and the suggestion to create a sub-committee to study the question. The Pope immediately responds, "Since the beginning of our conversation I've thought of that." Several times during my brief talk he had shown his understanding and sympathy....

But it's the end.... In telling him of all my gratitude for his welcome, I ask if I can carry away a bit of hope. He cries, "You have a right to more than hope!" Smiling, he adds, "I'm the chief, but I must also consult, have the offices study the questions raised. It isn't an absolute monarchy here." And we say good-bye, again simply shaking hands....