Praying for the Jews

Two Views on the New Good Friday Prayer

John T. Pawlikowski


On February 5, the Vatican published Pope Benedict XVI’s updated Tridentine-rite Good Friday prayer for the Jews. “Let us also pray for the Jews,” it reads in Latin. “May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” It continues, “All-powerful and everlasting God, you who want men to be saved and to reach the awareness of the truth, graciously grant that with the fullness of peoples entering into your church all of Israel may be saved. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

The controversy over an appropriate prayer for the Jewish people in Catholic liturgy has been with us since the time of John XXIII. Even prior to the Second Vatican Council, he removed the term “perfidious” from the Good Friday prayer. Then in 1965, just before Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church and Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra aetate), John’s successor, Paul VI, eliminated the negative language about the Jews (the reference to their “blindness,” for example) from the Good Friday liturgy, while leaving the call for conversion intact.

The 1970 Missal, the definitive response to the liturgical changes mandated by Vatican II, further revised the 1965 prayer. It acknowledged the Jewish people’s faithfulness to God, but left open the eschatological resolution of the apparent conflict between Christ’s universal salvific action and the Jews’ ongoing covenantal commitment. The 1970 prayer is clearly in the spirit of Nostra aetate, which totally rejected almost two millennia of Christian theological perspectives on the Jews, but failed to offer a definitive replacement. That task was left to subsequent generations of theologians and biblical scholars, work that has in fact been taking place since the end of the council. Two such ongoing efforts are the Christ and the Jewish People consultation, jointly sponsored by Boston College, the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Catholic Theological Union, and the Catholic University of Leuven with the encouragement of Cardinal Walter Kasper; and the multiyear study project on Paul and Judaism at the Catholic University of Leuven.

In an official international Vatican-Jewish dialogue in Venice in 1977, Tomaso Federici, a lay scholar highly respected in Vatican circles, proposed that in light of Nostra aetate Catholicism should formally renounce any proselytizing of the Jews. The official published version of his paper, which appeared several years later, was altered to call for a rejection of “undue” proselytizing.

A few years ago, Cardinal Kasper wrote that there is no need to proselytize Jews because they have authentic revelation and because, in the understanding of Vatican II, they remain in the covenant. But he did add that Catholicism must also retain a notion of Christ’s universal salvific work. Unfortunately, he never pursued how these two theological affirmations might be integrated.

The controversial 2002 statement “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” which was released as a study document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues, called for an end to proselytizing Jews. It drew praise from Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, Kasper’s predecessor at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, but was strongly critiqued by Cardinal Avery Dulles in America (October 14, 2002). The month before, an ecumenical scholars’ group on Christian-Jewish relations published “A Sacred Obligation.” It also called for an end to proselytizing.

The discussion about the new prayer for the Jews began last summer, in the context of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio on the Latin liturgy (see Commonweal, August 17, 2007). Groups long associated with efforts after Vatican II at Christian-Jewish understanding—such as the Committee of German Catholics and Jews, the International Council of Christians and Jews, the Austrian Coordinating Council on Jewish-Christian Relations, and the North American Council of Centers on Christian-Jewish Relations—sent messages to the Vatican urging that the Latin version of the 1970 Good Friday prayer be inserted into the 1962 Missal. Important Roman Catholic leaders like Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Germany and the U.S. bishops’ conference weighed in, along with several Jewish groups, including the Vatican’s official Jewish dialogue partner, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations and the Chief Rabbis of Israel. Concern over the prayer was shared equally by Christians and Jews. It was not, as the popular press has frequently suggested, a one-sided Jewish protest.

In late August, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone publicly acknowledged the concerns and suggested that making the 1970 prayer the common text for both missals might be the best solution. But something happened to push that proposal off the table. Pope Benedict, it was announced, would compose a new prayer.

The new prayer has engendered much controversy. Protests have come from many countries and groups. The Italian rabbinical association has decided to suspend any Catholic-Jewish dialogue. While the pope’s new prayer removes the most offensive language from the 1962 Missal, it calls on Jews to acknowledge Jesus Christ as savior.

In reflecting on the controversy, four points need to be made. First, interreligious dialogue is an encounter of people, not merely an academic theological exercise. In the spirit of the Vatican’s own 1974 document “Guidelines on Catholic-Jewish Relations,” it is vital for Catholics to understand why the issue of conversion strikes such a raw nerve in the Jewish community, particularly in light of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In fairness, Jews must also appreciate that mission is at the core of Christian identity. In the end, authentic dialogue and understanding must involve mutual learning. The new prayer has no sense of this.

Second, Jews need reassurance that the use of the prayer will not generate new programs aimed at proselytizing Jews. Cardinal Kasper and others have attempted to set the prayer in an eschatological context, particularly in light of Romans 11. Whether such a reading will be convincing remains an open question. There is little hope of changing the prayer itself at this point. But it is possible to leave the issue as strictly a matter of a prayer, rather then using it to initiate a new missionizing program.

Third, a prayer on Good Friday, especially given that historically this day often provoked Christian violence against Jews, should not become the occasion of a new theological understanding of the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the new oration could have been written before Vatican II. The 1970 prayer is superior because it affirms Jewish faithfulness without settling the question of how this might affect Christian notions of salvation. The theology behind this not-so-new prayer does not take into account what Gregory Baum, one of the drafters of Nostra aetate, called the council’s radical transformation of ordinary Catholic teaching on the Jews, the most striking turnabout to emerge from Vatican II.

Finally, at this critical moment we need to recommit to the Christian-Jewish encounter. Silence will get us nowhere. Various Christian and Jewish groups, including the USCCB, have called for continued dialogue, despite the pain the papal prayer has caused. Two special opportunities present themselves in the near future. The October synod of bishops in Rome will focus on the Bible and has placed the issue of Jewish-Christian relations on its preliminary agenda. And the upcoming jubilee-year celebration of St. Paul, which begins June 28, offers the possibility of bringing popular attention to the emerging view of Paul as someone with a quite positive understanding of Judaism, not merely as an opponent of Jewish law. Both avenues need to be pursued in earnest as a countermeasure to the negative impact of the new prayer.

The situation regarding the prayer for the Jews in the 1962 Missal has been handled badly from start to finish. But the controversy may still open the possibility of new learning and renewed commitment to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.

John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, is director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.



Judith Banki


Metaphors, by definition, can only approximate reality, but they can also illuminate it. My own visual metaphor for Catholic-Jewish rapprochement, after a half-century of involvement, is a road, or rather, a pathway—narrow, but hardly straight: twisted, thorny, very slippery indeed, strewn with pitfalls, its end uncertain. And yet, a small but deeply committed group of Catholics (some mandated by the church) and Jews, spurred by historical realities and encouraged by opportunities created by the Second Vatican Council, have chosen to trudge it together. Clergy and laypersons, scholars and educators, theologians and historians, men and women, have worked to overcome deeply entrenched prejudices, some rooted in religious teachings themselves, and to advance mutual understanding through official and unofficial dialogues, academic programs, joint study, and cooperative action toward shared goals. Along the way, they have developed real friendships and some genuine trust.

They have also encountered a few major roadblocks and shifts in direction. Will the Good Friday “Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews” just issued by Pope Benedict XVI prove to be another bump in the road or a complete reversal in direction, a U-turn in Catholic-Jewish relations?

The internal Catholic debate on this question has been thoughtfully summarized by Fr. John Pawlikowski. Aware that it is an internal debate involving the church’s theological self-understanding, the response by Jews has been muted. As noted, the Italian rabbinical association has voted for a “pause” in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Other Jewish groups have publicly expressed “disappointment,” but have declared their commitment to continued dialogue. Much will depend on whether the new prayer is interpreted eschatologically, a hope for the end of days, or as a mandate for a renewed mission to the Jews. This question is currently unresolved, but there is no current Catholic program or policy to convert Jews, and there has not been one for some years. Still, those who have insisted that Jews stay out of internal Catholic theological debate should remind them-selves that the practical consequences of Christian “theology” have led to persecution and pogroms in the past, and that concern about what Christians learn, teach, preach, and pray about Jews is motivated more by self-protection than by intrusiveness. It is no accident that for many centuries the most dangerous day in the year for Jews in Christian Europe was Good Friday.

Was it Karl Barth who said that Christians should only “do” theology in the presence of Jews? The meaning comes clear in the context of this controversy. The “disconnect” between theology and its historical applications has had disastrous consequences. Theology does not take place in a vacuum. Even prayerful hopes free of negative and hostile attributes about the objects of the prayer have had an impact on the lives and destinies of these “others.” Like his predecessor, Benedict XVI has reached out to the Jewish community in friendship on several occasions. This newly issued prayer for the conversion of the Jews may be intended to restate the fundamental message of the church regarding the universal salvific uniqueness of Christ. But for many Jews the very word “conversion” will recall campaigns, not prayerful hopes: the Crusades, the forced disputations and sermons, the expulsions, the Inquisition, the ghettos.

But to allow only these bitter memories to determine our response to the pope’s prayer would be a big mistake. We live in different times; the church has disowned coercion and affirmed religious liberty as a human right. But appropriate or not, the memories will come. Jews have long memories, Judaism itself is steeped in memory, and, as Fr. Edward Flannery observed some years ago, Christians have torn from their history books the pages that Jews have memorized.

To recognize this history without being mired in it is a task incumbent on both Catholics and Jews. What I have called “missed opportunities” and others have called “teaching moments missed” remain as bumps in the road. It is interesting that the traditionalists, for whom this prayer in Latin was newly issued, objected to the removal of the negative language about Jews. Although they are a small minority within the Catholic community, does not their persistent anti-Judaism, indeed, anti-Semitism, require a correction from church authority? Might the prayers for conversion of the Jews and others also incorporate the language of the church’s affirmation of religious freedom?

I do not believe that the friendships between Catholics and Jews that have developed over years of dialogue and joint study will be affected by the introduction of the Good Friday prayer. Mine have not, because the concerns of Catholic colleagues have been forthright and reassuring. But the trust is in one another, not in the church as an institution.

Personally, I am not concerned about whose faith will prevail at the end of days; I am concerned that we walk the path together, side by side, in partnership until the end of days.


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

Related: Trouble Ahead? by John R. Donahue

About the Author

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