Pivotal Figure

THE WOMAN BEHIND ‘NOSTRA AETATE'

Those who knew Sr. Rose Thering, OP, as a fellow nun, a friend, colleague, teacher, or activist, mourn her death and celebrate her courage. Although she lived a long and productive life-dying May 6 at the age of eighty-five-her passing leaves a huge hole in the fabric of Jewish-Catholic relations. To me, she was a cherished friend for more than forty years.

I met Rose in 1960, shortly after I joined the American Jewish Committee (AJC). She was then earning a PhD at St. Louis University. How Roman Catholic textbooks and teachers’ manuals portrayed other faith communities was her dissertation topic. Her research project had been inspired by the AJC, but it was an independent study, carried out and supervised by faithful adherents of the religion studied. I was sent to meet Rose, to learn what her research findings were, to coordinate those findings with parallel (Protestant and Jewish) textbook self-studies, and to bring all the research to public attention.

We were both distressed by the hostility and calumny found in descriptions of Jews and Judaism in the textbooks. The accusations against Jews included bearing collective guilt for the death of Jesus, and thereby being accursed and rejected by God. The suffering and persecution of the Jews over the centuries-at the hands of Christians-were understood as signs of providential punishment. These libels were later described as “the teaching of contempt” by the French historian Jules Isaac. Rose’s research provided the crucial basis for the request made to the Second Vatican Council by the AJC for the church to issue an authoritative repudiation of the religious roots of anti-Semitism. I believe that the evidence of anti-Semitism Rose uncovered helped convince the council fathers of the need for what eventually emerged, after a long and bitter struggle, as Nostra aetate.

Transformed by the implications of her research, Rose became an activist as well as a teacher. She was not easily cowed by official resistance. (In the award-winning film, Sister Rose’s Passion, about her unique contributions, Rose reports that a bishop urged her not to publicize her findings. “Don’t hang out our dirty laundry in public,” he said. “Well,” she said, “I hung it out!”)

Rose joined Seton Hall University’s newly established Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies in 1968. There, she threw her prodigious energies into the task of raising a generation of Catholic clergy, teachers, and students free from the poison of religious anti-Semitism and respectfully aware of the Jewish roots of their own tradition. Five years after the promulgation of Nostra aetate, she and Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum cohosted a conference at Seton Hall exploring whether the teachings of Nostra aetate had been implemented in Catholic high school and college education. She was determined that her findings would not gather dust in the historical archives of Vatican II, and worked in many ways to keep the issues alive. Rabbi Tanenbaum encouraged her work, and they remained close colleagues. After his death in 1992, Rose lent her energy and expertise to the Advisory Council of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligous Understanding, the organization named to perpetuate his work.

As a professor at Seton Hall and director of the university’s annual study tour to Israel, Rose became an influential figure in her field. She led more than fifty trips to Israel, and defended that nation against bias through her commitment to the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. She traveled to Austria to protest the inauguration of Kurt Waldheim when his record as a Nazi officer during World War II was publicly revealed-and made headlines when she was strip-searched at the airport. Always courageous, occasionally cantankerous, she was not intimidated by titles-political or religious. Today, the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall provides scholarships for hundreds of teachers in New Jersey schools to facilitate teaching about the Holocaust and genocide.

A number of her fellow academics and professional colleagues were interviewed for Sister Rose’s Passion. I was among them. I observed that Rose had absorbed and internalized so much Jewish history that she intuitively reacted to situations as a Jew would: that she had “a Jewish heart,” combined with a Roman Catholic conscience. It was a potent combination!

With all Rose’s spiritual depth, there was a wonderful down-to-earth quality about her. When the rules for women’s religious communities changed after Vatican II and a number of nuns adopted contemporary clothing, I remember waxing sentimental about the graceful appearance of sisters in their habits. (Actually, I was recalling a newspaper photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. marching in the street with one or two nuns, and I believed the sisters’ “uniforms” added symbolic value to the march for civil rights.) After I invoked the gracefulness of their habits, Rose cut me short with a single comment: “Ah, Judy,” she said, “you never had to wear one!” She taught me a valuable lesson that day. Never wax romantic about the rules that regulate other peoples’ lives.

On May 1, 2001, Rose Thering finally received long overdue acknowledgement for the role her research had played at the Second Vatican Council, an award from the International Liaison Committee of the Holy See’s Commission on Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. It was my privilege to present the award to her, and I hailed her as a planter of mustard seeds, which have and will continue to produce a harvest of understanding and mutual respect.

We often hear that the passing of a leader signifies “the end of an era.” I fervently hope that is not true in this case. In the past forty years, the theological and institutional support for the church’s traditional hostility and contempt toward the Jews has been largely uprooted. The work is far from finished, and there has been a falling off in the vitality and enthusiasm that marked the immediate post-Vatican II period. But with Sr. Rose’s indefatigable energy and commitment as example, we will honor her memory by rededicating ourselves to her goals.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Judith Banki is director of special programs at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York City.

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