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Healing a historic wound

Pope John XXIII made Christian-Jewish healing a priority.AP/file 1962/Associated Press

For Boston Catholic S of a certain age, it was once common to hear Jews denounced as “Christ-killers,” or to attend Masses that ended with a prayer “for the conversion of the Jews.” Those old enough to remember Mayor James Michael Curley may recall his description of Boston as “the strongest Coughlin city in America” — a reference to Father Charles Coughlin, the Jew-hating Detroit priest whose toxic radio broadcasts drew tens of millions of listeners, and whose anti-Semitic newspaper, “Social Justice,” was once hawked on the steps of Roman Catholic churches.

What a difference 50 years makes.

The bigotry against Jews that was once so pervasive in Catholic life, a prejudice sustained by a millennia-old "teaching of contempt," no longer exists. It was swept away in the wake of "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Times"), a declaration issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that radically revised the church's attitude toward the Jewish people, and ushered in an era of interfaith respect and understanding that would once have been inconceivable.

"The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures," proclaimed Vatican II's revolutionary statement. It emphasized the patrimony Christianity owes to Judaism, and categorically renounced all "hatred, persecutions, [or] displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."


It was Pope John XXIII who set the revolution in motion. As a bishop during World War II, he had worked to save refugees from the Nazis, and when he became pope in 1958 he made Christian-Jewish healing a priority. "I am Joseph, your brother," he famously greeted a delegation of American Jews, quoting words of reconciliation from one of the most stirring scenes in the Hebrew Bible. Though his papacy lasted only five years, Pope John's message of warmth and empathy was sustained and extended by his successors, beginning with Pope Paul VI, who formally promulgated Nostra Aetate in 1965, and continuing through to Pope Francis, who recently reaffirmed it.

"Christians, all Christians, have Jewish roots," the pope told the throng on St. Peter's Square on Oct. 28. "Since Nostra Aetate, indifference and opposition have turned into cooperation and goodwill. Enemies and strangers became friends and brothers."

Catholics who came of age after the 1960s may find it hard to grasp how extraordinary and deep-rooted that transformation has been. On the website of the Boston Archdiocese is a cornucopia of resources for promoting Catholic-Jewish friendship and fraternity. Cardinal Sean O'Malley has spoken movingly about the importance the church attaches to combating anti-Semitism: "It is for us Catholics a part of our response to God," he has said.


For a Church accustomed to thinking in terms of centuries, 50 years is hardly more than a moment. But in just such a moment, there has been a tectonic shift in the 2,000-year relationship between two ancient faiths. In a world so badly shaken by extremist religious violence, the legacy of Nostra Aetate is a potent reminder that hostility need not be permanent, and that the power of "Love thy neighbor" can heal even the rawest wounds.