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Giving Thanks for a New Jewish-Catholic Relationship in Our Time

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Thanksgiving is a good time to remember that nearly 50 years ago, on Oct. 28, 1965, everything changed between Jews and Catholics.

That was when the Second Vatican Council, a grand assembly of all the world’s Catholic bishops, promulgated its “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” commonly known by its opening Latin words, Nostra Aetate, meaning “In our time.”

The declaration was prompted by the unspeakable abomination of the Shoah. The shock of the genocide in the heart of Europe led Christians, including Roman Catholics, to examine and reform their hostile teachings about Jews and Judaism. 

As part of this reckoning of the soul, Nostra Aetate repudiated anti-Jewish claims held without question by Christians for almost two millennia. It insisted that “Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” On the contrary, it said, “God holds the Jews most dear.” These were the words that began to change everything, initiating a remarkable and continuing shift toward a new relationship.

In Philadelphia, the impact of Nostra Aetate was quickly felt. Within a year, Saint Joseph’s University and the American Jewish Committee cooperated in planning what is now called the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. It was the first such venture at an American Catholic university in response to the declaration. From the start, engagement with the Jewish community has been an essential part of all its work.

Today, bishops visit yeshivas and synagogues; rabbis celebrate the installation of new popes; and Jews and Catholics dialogue in living rooms and in each others’ houses of worship. 

The changed relationship is also seen in the growth of the Saint Joseph’s Institute that we direct together as Catholic and Jewish professors. We co-teach regularly, collaborate in sustained dialogue and research, and contribute to national and international interfaith initiatives. Such teamwork is essential because of the challenging and stimulating topics that Jews and Catholics can now discuss.

The golden anniversary of the declaration in the fall of 2015 is an important opportunity for the Jewish and Catholic communities of the Delaware Valley to recommit to what Pope Francis has called our “journey of friendship … a genuine gift of God.” No doubt he will express similar sentiments when he visits Philadelphia next September.

Saint Joseph’s University will commemorate Nostra Aetate’s 50th anniversary — and the nearly 50 years of the work of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations — through special programs throughout the coming months, leading up to the dedication on the campus of a special memorial.

On dozens of medieval European cathedrals, Christianity’s dominance over Judaism was symbolized by feminine figures of Ecclesia (Church) and Synagoga (Synagogue). Church is a crowned, triumphant woman, bearing the chalice of the Eucharist and a staff of authority. Synagogue is a defeated, blindfolded woman, whose crown has fallen, with a broken staff and the tablets of the law or a torn Torah scroll limp in her hand.

The university’s monument will reflect the new teaching of the Catholic Church: Church and Synagogue will both be depicted as proud, crowned women, living in covenant with God side by side. These figures will also be accompanied by several quotations to illustrate the “journey of friendship” of recent decades. We see these symbols and texts as a source of hope, and welcome Jews and Catholics alike to celebrate the unprecedented changes that have made a new relationship a reality “in our time.”


Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and Adam Gregerman is assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Saint Joseph’s University. Together, they direct its Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.