Pope John XXIII and Judaism

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The relations between Pope John XXIII and Judaism are generally thought to have been among the best in the bi-millennial history of Christianity. The pontiff began an ecclesiastical policy of Christian–Jewish reconciliation after his election to the papacy in 1959, which was mostly focused on organizing the Second Vatican Council.


1960 Good Friday Prayer for the Jews[edit]

Shortly after his election Pope John XXIII interrupted a Good Friday liturgy when one of the celebrants used the word "perfidious" to describe the Jews. John had the prayer repeated with the offending word omitted.[1]

In 1960, Pope John XXIII removed word "faithless" (Latin: perfidis) from the prayer for the conversion of the Jews. This word had caused much trouble in recent times because of misconceptions that the Latin perfidis was equivalent to "perfidious", giving birth to the view that the prayer accused the Jews of treachery (perfidy), though the word is more correctly translated as "faithless" or "non-believing".[2]

Accordingly, the prayer was revised to read:

Let us pray also for the Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. Arise. Almighty and eternal God, who dost also not exclude from thy mercy the Jews: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.[3]

Decretum de Iudaeis[edit]

Decretum de Iudaeis is the name given to the series of draft documents of the Second Vatican Council which led to ground-breaking progress in the Church's relations with Jews. Cardinal Bea had been commissioned by Pope John XXIII to write the "Decree on the Jews", which was completed in November 1961. The first draft document essentially went nowhere, never having been submitted to the Council, which opened on 11 October 1962.

Meeting with a Jewish delegation[edit]

During the 1960s, Pope John XXIII met with a delegation of Jews and said, "I am Joseph Your Brother" marking the beginning of a new relationship between Jews and Catholics. A 2000 film entitled I am Joseph, Your Brother assesses and reflects on the changes that have occurred in the often difficult and turbulent relationship that has existed for centuries between Jews and Christians.[4]

Role of Dr. Rose Thering[edit]

In 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, Augustin Cardinal Bea used Dr. Rose Thering's study to draft portions of the 1965 Vatican document Nostra aetate ("In Our Age"), which declared of Christ's death that "what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today," and, as for teaching, added, "The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God."

Work of Marc H. Tanenbaum[edit]

Marc H. Tanenbaum's work in the field of Jewish-Christian relations was galvanized when Pope John XXIII called for a revitalization of the Catholic Church in the form of the Ecumenical Council in 1961. At the time, Rabbi Tanenbaum was Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. He supervised an initiative which addressed the negative portrayal of Judaism in Catholic textbooks and in the liturgy. It included concrete steps to alleviate tensions and reduce prejudice. He worked alongside Jewish philanthropist Angelo Donati to settle the dispute.

Relations with Israel[edit]

Although Pope John XXIII was generally popular with Jews, he did not publicly recognize the State of Israel, essentially because of issues surrounding Church properties and support for post-1948 refugees, as explained in the document In multiplicibus curis. His encyclical Pacem in terris has at times been re-evaluated in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nostra aetate[edit]

Nostra aetate is the Second Vatican Council's document on interfaith relations. Passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 of the assembled bishops, it was promulgated on October 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI.[5] Although John XXIII had already died when the statement was passed, it is generally thought to be strongly influenced by the late Pope's teachings.

Nuncio under Pius XII[edit]

Part of the historical debate surrounding Pius XII has concerned the role of nuncio Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, in rescuing Jews during the War. While some historians have argued that Roncalli was acting as a nuncio on behalf of the Pope, others have said that he was acting on his own when he intervened on behalf of Jews, as it would appear by the rather independent position he took during the orphans controversy.[6]

Holocaust in Hungary[edit]

According to the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, Roncalli forwarded a request for the Vatican to inquire whether other neutral countries could grant asylum to Jews, to inform the German government that the Palestine Jewish Agency had 5,000 immigration certificates available and to ask Vatican Radio to broadcast that helping Jews was an act of mercy approved by the Church. In 1944, Roncalli used diplomatic couriers, papal representatives and the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion to transport and issue baptismal certificates, immigration certificates and visas – many of them forged – to Hungarian Jews. A dispatch dated Aug. 16, 1944 from Roncalli to the papal nuncio to Hungary illustrates the intensity of "Operation Baptism":

Holocaust in Romania[edit]

In February 1944, Roncalli met twice with Rabbi Isaac Herzog (Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog), chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Herzog asked him to intercede for 55,000 Jews interned in Romania, another Axis ally. Though Roncalli notified Rome, only 750 Jewish refugees – 250 of them orphans – were saved when their ship arrived in Palestine.[7]

Holocaust in Slovakia and Bulgaria[edit]

Roncalli remained determined even though the Vatican had apparently refused his demands for help. With the help of Boris III of Bulgaria, a reluctant Axis ally, Roncalli used the Red Cross to save thousands of Slovakian Jews who had been deported to Bulgaria prior to extermination.[7]

Jewish orphans controversy[edit]

Angelo Roncalli was serving as Nuncio for France reportedly ignored a directive to not return baptized Jewish orphans to their parents.[8] He would later be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations because of his assistance to the Jewish underground when he was Nuncio for Greece and Turkey.

Proposal for Righteous Among the Nations[edit]

Angelo Roncalli has been proposed as "Righteous Among the Nations" in the Yad Vashem museum, an honor reserved for non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Rabbi Simon Moguilevsky, chief rabbi of Buenos Aires, called Roncalli "a man truly created in the image of God." [9]


  1. ^ "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust: 1930-1965", Michael Phayer, p. 209, Indiana University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-253-33725-9
  2. ^ This misunderstanding is based on an inadequate understanding of medieval Latin. In classical Latin, perfidus did have a meaning similar to its present English analogue, derived as it was from the phrase per fidem decipere, "to deceive through trust." However, by late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, perfidus and perfidia simply meant the opposite of fides and fidelis. (K.P. Harrington, Mediaeval Latin (1925), p. 181, fn 5) Thus perfidus in medieval Latin is best translated as "faithless" or "non-believing", meaning lacking the Christian faith.
  3. ^ Oremus et pro Iudæis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum. (Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate) Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui Iudæos etiam a tua misericordia non repellis: exaudi preces nostras, quas pro illius populi obcæcatione deferimus; ut, agnita veritatis tuæ luce, quæ Christus est, a suis tenebris eruantur. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus: per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Amen. (Roman Missal, 1962 typical edition, pages 173-174)
  4. ^ I am Joseph, Your Brother
  5. ^ Pope Paul VI (1965-10-28). "Declaration on the relation of the church to non-christian religions — Nostra aetate". Holy See. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 
  6. ^ Pope John XXIII and the Jews The reliability of this source document has been questioned in the Talk page
  7. ^ a b Ibid
  8. ^ Jerusalem Report, (February 7, 2005).
  9. ^ Ibidem