Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Good Friday Prayer and the conversion of the Jews

The Crucifixion: for the Rosary Walk at Aylesford Priory
We've heard from the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales that they would like to get rid of the Prayer for the Jews used in the Extraordinary Form Good Friday Liturgy. Archbishop Kevin McDonald (former Archbishop of Southwark), who is in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations, says this about it:

“The 1970 prayer which is now used throughout the Church is basically a prayer that the Jewish people would continue to grow in the love of God’s name and in faithfulness of his Covenant, a Covenant which – as St John Paul II made clear in 1980 – has not been revoked. By contrast the prayer produced in 2008 for use in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy reverted to being a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.”

The 2008 prayer replaced one expressed in rather strong language, language used by St Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. Pope Benedict thought it best to express its central idea, and even its central image - of light overcoming darkness - in a slightly different way.

Pope Benedict's prayer reads as follows:
Let us also pray for the Jews: that our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men.

The Novus Ordo Prayer is this:
Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.

So what, exactly, is the suggestion? That people of Jewish extraction (or is it just Jews who practice their religion?) are saved by something other than Christ? But that can't be right, at least according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

846 Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."

It should be noted that these passages come immediately after the Catechism's treatment of the Jews, and of Muslims, so they'd not been forgotten. Everyone who is going to be saved, is going to be saved, whether through Baptism or through a 'way known only to God', by reference to Christ's blood which was shed for the whole of mankind.

This is made explicit by Vatican II's Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, whose anniversary was the occasion for this discussion by the Bishops' Conference (section 4):

Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

The idea that Christ did not die for the Jewish people is evidently absurd. (How about Matthew 15:24? 'I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel'.) The idea that the Jews, before or after the Passion, received the grace of God in any other way than through the 'cross of Christ' would be a fundamental mistake.

Archbishop McDonald refers us to something Pope St John Paul II said in 1980. He must mean a very short speech (a speech- not a very heavyweight exercise of magisterial authority) to the Jewish community of Berlin on 17th November that year. It is not available in English on the Vatican website, but you can read it here. The relevant passage is this:

The first dimension of this dialogue, that is, the meeting between the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God [cf. Rom. 11:29], and that of the New Covenant, is at the same time a dialogue within our Church, that is to say, between the first and the second part of her Bible.

What does this reference to the Old Covenant mean? Pope St John Paul refers us to Romans 11:29. (These kinds of references are part of the official text, notwithstanding the square brackets; the same passage of St Paul is cited by Nostra aetate to the same effect.) St Paul tells us this:

For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.

The context of this verse is all about how the Jews have (mostly) rejected Christ, and have therefore been 'disobedient', but remain 'dear' to God for the sake of the Patriarchs, and St Paul looks forward to their salvation. It is one of the passages which has led to the tradition that the Last Judegement won't happen until 'the conversion of the Jews': that is, it is something which will happen at the end of history.

So, to put all this together, St John Paul II, following Nostra aetate, makes reference to the fact that the Old Covenant still retains its importance, in the sense that God's promise to Israel (of the coming of the Redeemer) has not been taken back, as St Paul expressed it. Archbishop McDonald appears to suggest that there is a tension between this and the aspiration expressed in Pope Benedict's prayer that Jews come to believe in Christ. This is very puzzling, since St Paul himself spent a great deal of time proclaiming the Gospel to Jews, and experienced a great deal of anguish about those who did not accept his message.

In a nutshell: saying, with St Paul, that God does not revoke His promises, cannot contradict praying and working, like St Paul, for the Jews to accept Christ.

Of course this does not mean proselytism (which has become established as meaning encouraging conversions in a bad way, for example by coercion or bribery); it may not mean anything active at all. The Church's evangelisation (the good kind of encouraging conversion) is often carried out simply by the witness of a life of faith- as the old hymn says, By kindly words and virtuous life. The very fact that this kind of evangelisation does not target anyone in particular, means that Jews cannot be excluded from it. From time to time Jewish people do, in fact, come to the Faith: we can't tell them to go away.

The continuing relevance of the Old Covenant for Jews today, from a Catholic point of view, has become a very hot topic, and Pope Benedict himself had a good deal to say about this as a private theologian. That did not stop him, however, from praying that Jews might receive the grace of Christ. It is not as if the grace of Christ is something bad.

We need to be very careful with these old prayers. The original prayer was of great antiquity, and represented a theological perspective from the age of the Fathers of the Church, which has been accepted and honoured by the saints and doctors of every age of the Church since then. Furthermore, the liturgy is a 'theological source': it doesn't have the same authority as Scripture, but like Scripture it does have authority. These old prayers can't simply be brushed aside. The theological content, if not all the language, of the old prayer is preserved in Pope Benedict's version. Its correspondence with documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hardly a coincidence. The prayer's theological content is part of the Faith of the Church.

Incidentally, Nostra aetate is extremely short; I recommend anyone wanting to know what the fuss is about to read the text. All the versions of the Prayer for the Jews from Good Friday are handily given by the Wikipedia article.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. This controversy flows from Benedict XVI's mistake of changing the previous prayer in the first place. John XXIII had altered the original prayer by a single word, removing the term 'perfidelis' - quite rightly or at least defensibly since that term is understood as meaning 'treacherous' (the only meaning assigned it in the Oxford Latin Dictionary). This is quite different from removing the original and inserting another one - it is questionable if the Pope has the right to do this for the most sacred prayers in the Latin rite.

  2. Of course, everything else in the Church is fine. No closing Parishes. No lack of vocations, the garden is rosy. You really could not make this stuff up.

  3. I've blogged on this at the LMS Wrexham blog.

    Quite how the CBCEW suddenly now concludes that the prayer is objectionable is beyond me. It gives witness to Our Lord Jesus Christ being Saviour of ALL mankind - basic catechetics to me.

    More curious is that the prayer, probably said in only a handful of locations in E & W each Good Friday is a major issue especially on the backdrop of all else that is going on at this moment or are the Bishops about to guarantee a Triduum celebration in the Vetus Ordo in every diocese?

  4. God save us from the perfidious bishops.

  5. Given the present situation in Europe, this is becoming an important issue. Mankind, not the Jews crucified Christ and certainly since Pope Gregory the Great, the Church has made this clear.

    European Jews now report widespread hostility and even violence, mainly from Muslims and particularly in France.

    Catholicism can have no part in this!

  6. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales do not affirm Vatican Council II (AG 7, LG 14) in agreement with the traditional (Council of Trent) interpretation of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (EENS)

  7. The Pope has said we must not proselytise. This puzzles me as my somewhat out of date SOED merely defines it as convert with no pejorative meaning. I wonder therefore where you get the idea that the word "has become established as meaning encouraging conversions in a bad way, for example by coercion or bribery".

    Wikipedia has 'Some Christians define "proselytism" more narrowly as the attempt to convert people from one Christian tradition to another; those who use the term in this way generally view the practice as illegitimate and in contrast to evangelism, which is converting non-Christians to Christianity. '

    Perhaps Pope Francis was thinking of that definition. It certainly fits more closely with some other sayings of Pope Francis.

    On the other hand the traditional Argentinian approach to their native people was 'convert or die'.

  8. On proselytism and evangelisation, I could cite numerous examples illustrating the constrasting meaning from the words of the Holy Father. 'Do not proselytise!' has become a watchword. And yet Evangelii Gaudium is full of exhortations to evangelise. The two things are clearly not the same.

  9. I would like to point out something that I found difficult to accept in your writing here in this article Dr. Shaw.

    In the article you mention that our attempt to evangelize is about leading a virtuous life and with kindly words. I find this hard to accept since this is not what our Lord indicated in scripture. Neither has it been the primary method of evenglizing adopted by the Church in her history.

    Also in regards to the old covenant still being valid, that is something that sounds heretical, no? I find the interpretation you give to the claim made by Pope St. John Paul II a bit forced as well. At the very least, the sentence by St. John Paul II seems deliberately phrased to confuse anyone, Catholic or Jew, in regards to what is being said. I don't see why we can't just say he made an error and just leave it at that.

    1. It is not *only* kindly words and virtuous life. But that is a major form of giving witness to the faith. Of course missionary priests and so on are trained and go to mission lands; similarly all priests are trained to evangelise their parish. At no point in the history of the Church have *most* people been missionaries in the sense of having special training - like the Mormons. They've all given witness to the Faith in their daily lives, however.

      On the Old Covenant, its continuing importance is true in the sense that St Paul said it was true. JPII simply refers to to St Paul. What is not compatible with the Faith is the claim, which you sometimes hear from 'Dual Covenant' proponents, that Jesus did not die for all men, but only non-Jews. The validity of the Old Covenant can't mean that - and it obviously doesn't in St Paul.

    2. Unfortunately, it really is difficult to see the objection to a prayer like Benedict XVI's unless one subscribes, on some level, to Dual Covenant theology.