By Fr. George Welzbacher
February 24, 2008
By now you have probably read reports of Pope Benedict's revision (issued February 5th) of the prayer for the conversion of the Jews that has long been part of the liturgy for Good Friday in the Tridentine rite. The revision does not relate to the Good Friday prayers recited or chanted in the post-Vatican II liturgy, the Novus Ordo, the order of worship which the overwhelming majority of Catholics follow today, either in the vernacular or, as in the Solemn High Mass offered each Sunday at the Church of St. Agnes, in Latin. The prayer revised by Pope Benedict is one in a long set of prayers offered on Good Friday for various groups, and like its companion prayers it is cast in the form of a couplet, with an initial exhortation to the congregants followed by a prayer addressed to God. On Good Friday this year, March 21st, the new wording will replace the older text for all those worshipping in accordance with the Tridentine rite.
In the past the congregants in the Tridentine rite were exhorted to pray that God would "remove from the hearts of the Jews the veil" [cf. 11 Corinthians 3:12-16] that is the source of a temporary "blindness" [Romans 11: 25-26] that hinders the Jews from seeing that Christ is the Savior of all mankind, Gentile and Jew alike. In a more diplomatic rewording of the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, namely that all who are saved are saved through Christ and through Him alone, the introductory exhortation now reads (in my own translation): "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Christ Jesus as the Savior of all mankind." And the prayer with which the couplet concludes will now read: "Almighty and Eternal God, You who wish all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth [cf. I Timothy 2:4], grant in Your loving kindness that, as the Gentiles in their plenitude enter Your Church, all oflsrael may be saved.
The official Latin text-in the Tridentine Rite vernacular languages have no place-reads as follows:
Oremus et pro ludaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster illuminet corda eorum, ut agnoscant lesum Christum salvatorem omnium hominum.
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui vis ut omnes homines saivi fiant et ad agnitionem veritatis veniant, concede propitius, ut plenitudine gentium in Ecciesiam Tuam intrante omnis Israel salvus fiat. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen
This new wording has been severely criticized both by Jewish religious leaders and by a narrow faction of arch-conservatives among the significant number of Catholics preferring to follow the Tridentine rite. The aforesaid Catholic faction takes umbrage, it would seem, at the issuing of revisions of any kind. At the other end of the spectrum many leaders of the Jewish faith have voiced objection to the revision on the grounds that it does not go far enough. Quoted in the New York Times for February 6th, Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, described the revised text as "disappointing". This is his comment: "Pope Benedict really does care about positive Catholic-Jewish relations-that I know for a fact. It is therefore particularly disappointing that this text doesn't seem to show any sensitivity as to how this new text will be read within Jewish circles." Rabbi Rosen's negative evaluation was ratcheted up more than a notch or two in the formal resolution passed on February 12th by Conservative Judaism's International Rabbinical Assembly. The Rabbinical Assembly declared itself "dismayed and deeply disturbed that Pope Benedict XVI" in his revision of the Good Friday prayer is "retaining the rubric [the prayer's formal title in the Missal] 'For the Conversion of the Jews'. Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, was quoted in the Times (for February the ninth) to the effect that while "relationships with the Catholic Church are really quite good", the new text, in his opinion, "really turns back the clock a bit and reverts to some sense that the church is pulling back from the positions it took in Vatican II."
The Jewish leaders' objections stem of course from the fact that a majority of Jews reject Christ's assertion that He is at once the Messiah, the Son of David, and the eternally begotten Son of God become Man, the Divine Word made Flesh, a Divine Person distinct from the Father but a Person Who from all eternity has received from the Father the entire Divine Nature and is therefore equal to the Father in all things: "Before ever Abraham was, I AM "(John 8:58) (cf. Exodus 3: 14) and "Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise" (John 5:19). Christ Himself insisted that in order to believe in His divinity His disciples would need a divinely bestowed gift of faith, a supernatural gift that man cannot generate by his own native powers: "No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draw him" (John 6:44). But Christ assured His disciples that the Father would grant this gift of faith to all who listened to His Son's words and who earnestly sought to follow where those words led: "Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). Accordingly, those who have received the gift of faith and who are thus able to confess Christ to be God's only-begotten Son will have no quarrel with Christ's assertion that "No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:16). If there can be no salvation apart from God, and if Christ is God, as indeed He is, then it follows that there can be no salvation apart from Christ. Thus words that would be blasphemous if uttered by a mere man-the ultimate charge leveled against Christ by the leaders of the Jews was blasphemy (John 19:7)-become, on the lips of the Man Who is God, the expression of inescapable reality: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:16).
It should be emphasized that Christ's declaration that "No one comes to the Father except through me" does not mean that only those who formally profess themselves to be Christian have access to salvation. As Pope Pius XII explained in Mystici Corporis, his encyclical letter on the nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, and as the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed in its magisterial document Lumen Gentium, everyone who tries to do God's will in the light of what he sincerely believes that will to be possesses already by that very fact, connection with Christ, an imperfect connection, fragile and insecure, but a connection nevertheless, since the very core of God's will is acceptance of and obedience to His only, begotten Son: "This is the work of my Father, that you believe in Him who He has sent." (John 6:29) But such an imperfect connection with Christ-what Pope Pius XII called "an implicit baptism of desire"-fragile and insecure as it is, ideally should be reinforced and brought to perfection by a formal and complete membership in Christ's Church, with full participation in the life of grace. For in that Church alone is to be found the fullness of truth that Christ has revealed, a fullness that is guarded by the Holy Spirit against error and loss. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, in accordance with Christ's promise dwells within Christ's Church to guide and guard the Church's defense of that truth forever (John: chapters 14, 15 and 16 passim), And only in the Church of Christ is to be found the full range of resources for healing and strengthening the human soul, the full panoply of the seven sacraments that combine to provide an inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness and grace. Clarity of purpose and certitude with respect to all that one must do if one is to achieve that purpose, together with easy access to the grace, the power, so to act--these are the gifts from God that are available in their fullness only in Christ's Church, His Mystical Body, the instruent through which God offers us the fullest measure of unity with Christ that is attainable on our pilgrim way.
That is why the Church cannot renounce its prayer for the conversion of the Jews, the people of the Ancient Covenant. To do so, to give up that prayer, would be a sin, a violation of charity. To approve the Jews' exclusion from Christ's mission of salvation would be to deny the justice of God. It would be to acquiesce in the devout Jew's being deprived of the fullness of truth and grace, and of a greater security in the pursuit of salvation, that full unity with Christ through full membership in His Church affords. Pope Benedict is thus in essence reaffirming the words that St. Peter spoke before the Sandhedrin, when the apostles were forbidden to preach in Jesus' name: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we can be saved" ( Acts 4: 12). It is precisely a genuine love for the Jews, a zealous desire that they should possess in Christ the fulfillment of the ancient promises, that urges us insistently to continue to pray that the day will come, as St. Paul assures us it will (Romans: Chapter 11), when the people of the Ancient Covenant will no longer be deprived of those overflowing riches of the spirit to which they have the most ancient claim.