Polish Bishops Pastoral on Jewish-Catholic Relations

We address you today about the very important issue of our relationship to the Jewish people and to the Mosaic religion, with which we Christians are uniquely linked. We do this on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, in which the church defined more precisely its relations to non-Christian religions, among them the Jewish religion.

This declaration, adopted on Oct. 27, 1965, has lost none of its importance or contemporary value today. Our Holy Father John Paul II has repeated this on numerous occasions, saying “I would like to confirm with the deepest conviction that the teaching of the church, given during the Second Vatican Council in the declaration Nostra Aetate … always remains for us, for the Catholic Church, for the episcopate … and for the pope, a teaching to which one must adhere, a teaching which one must accept not only as something relevant but even more, as an expression of faith, as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as a word of divine wisdom” (Speech to the Jewish community in Venezuela, Jan. 15, 1985).

The conciliar declaration points out first and foremost the multiplicity and diversity of ties that exist between the church, the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. There is no other religion with which the church has such close relations nor is there any other people with which it is so closely linked. “The church of Christ,” write the fathers of the council, “acknowledges that in God’s plan of salvation the beginning of her faith and election is to be found in the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Therefore, John Paul II, who after St. Peter, was the first of his successors to visit a synagogue, having visited the synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986, could address the Jews as “our elder brothers” in the faith.

“Many Poles saved Jews during the last war. Hundreds, if not thousands, paid for this with their own lives…. In spite of so many heroic examples of help on the part of Polish Christians, there were also people who remained indifferent to this incomprehensible tragedy.”

The church is rooted in the Jewish people and in the faith of the Jews most of all because of the fact that Jesus Christ, according to the flesh, came from that people. This central event in the history of salvation was from its very inception intended by God in his original plan of salvation. To that people God disclosed his name and made a covenant with them. This election was not only an exclusive privilege, but also a great commitment to the faith and fidelity to the one God, including the testimony of suffering and, quite often, of death as well. To this people God entrusted the special mission of uniting everyone in the true faith in one God and awaiting the Messiah, the Savior. When the time was fulfilled, the eternally true word of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, took flesh from the Virgin Mary, a daughter of the Jewish people. Announced by the prophets and awaited by his own people, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem as “a son of David, a son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). From the Jewish people came also “the apostles, the pillars on which the church stands,” as well as “many of those early disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world” (Nostra Aetate, 4).

The church, as God’s people of the new election and covenant, did not disinherit God’s people of the first election and covenant of the gifts received from God. As St. Paul teaches, the Israelites, because of their forefathers, are the subject of love (Rom. 11:28), and therefore the gift of grace and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). To them belong also “the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). God thus has not revoked his selection of the Jewish people as the chosen people, but continues to bestow his love. He and only he, the almighty and merciful God, knows the day “when all people will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Nostra Aetate, 4).

The fathers of the council, in the declaration, deny in a clear and decisive manner the main accusation that all Jews bear responsibility for the death of Christ. The declaration states, “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion” (ibid.). Some people, however, quoting the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children,” (Mt. 27:25) accuse the Jews of the death of Christ. In reality, these words mean: We accept the full responsibility for that death. But it was not the entire Jewish people who said this, only the unruly crowd gathered in front of Pilate’s palace. One should not forget that for these people, as for all of us, Jesus prayed on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

The catechism of the Council of Trent treats the question of the responsibility for the death of Christ as follows: “Christian sinners are more responsible for the death of Christ in comparison with certain Jews who participated in it. The latter really did not know what they did, whereas we know only too well… (Part 1, Chap. 5, Quest. 9). The declaration Nostra Aetate reminds us of the traditional teaching of the church that “Christ … freely underwent suffering and death because of the sins of all” (No. 4).

The teaching of the church in that declaration was developed in later documents of the Apostolic See. Especially important is a document of 1985 titled “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.” This deserves the widest possible dissemination, especially among pastors and catechists.

We Poles have particular ties with the Jewish people from as early as the first centuries of our history. Poland became for many Jews a second fatherland. The majority of Jews living in the world today are by origin from the territories of the previous and current Polish commonwealth. Unfortunately, in our century this particular land became the grave for several million Jews. Not by our wish, and not by our hands. Here is what our Holy Father said recently, on Sept. 26 of this year, about our common history: “There is still one other nation, one particular people: the people of the patriarchs, of Moses and the prophets, the inheritors of the faith of Abraham…. This people lived side by side with us for generations on the same land, which became, as it were, a new fatherland of their diaspora. This people underwent the terrible death of millions of their sons and daughters. At first they were stigmatized in a particular way. Later, they were pushed into the ghetto in separate neighborhoods. Then they were taken to the gas chambers, they underwent death – only because they were children of this people. Murderers did this on our land – perhaps in order to dishonor it. One cannot dishonor a land by the death of innocent victims. Through such death a land becomes a sacred relic” (Speech to Poles during a Wednesday audience, Sept. 26, 1990).

“The most important way to overcome the difficulties that still exist today is the establishment of a dialogue which would lead to the elimination of distrust, prejudices and stereotypes.”

During his historic meeting in 1987 with the few Jews living in Poland, in Warsaw, the Holy Father said, “Be assured, dear brothers, that the Poles, this Polish church is in a spirit of profound solidarity with you when she looks closely at the terrible reality of the extermination – the unconditional extermination – of your nation, an extermination carried out with premeditation. The threat against you was also a threat against us; this latter was not realized to the same extent because it did not have time to be realized to the same extent. It was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination: One might say that you suffered it also on behalf of those who were likewise to have been exterminated” (L’Osservatore Romano, June 1987).

Many Poles saved Jews during the last war. Hundreds, if not thousands, paid for this with their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. For each of the Jews saved there was a whole chain of hearts of people of good will and helping hands. The express testimony of that help to Jews in the years of the Hitler occupation are the many trees dedicated to Poles in Yad Vashem, the place of national memory in Jerusalem, with the honored title, “The Just Among the Nations” given to many Poles. In spite of so many heroic examples of help on the part of Polish Christians, there were also people who remained indifferent to this incomprehensible tragedy. We are especially disheartened by those among Catholics who in some way were the cause of the death of Jews. They will forever gnaw at our conscience on the social plane. If only one Christian could have helped and did not stretch out a helping hand to a Jew during the time of danger or caused his death, we must ask for forgiveness of our Jewish brothers and sisters. We are aware that many of our compatriots still remember the injustices and injuries committed by the postwar communist authorities, in which people of Jewish origin also took part. We must acknowledge, however, that the source of inspiration of their activity was clearly neither their origin nor religion, but the communist ideology, from which the Jews themselves, in fact, suffered many injustices.

We express our sincere regret for all the incidents of anti-Semitism, which were committed at any time or by anyone on Polish soil. We do this with the deep conviction that all incidents of anti-Semitism are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and – as Pope John Paul II recently emphasized – “remain opposed to the Christian vision of human dignity” (John Paul II on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II).

In expressing our sorrow for all the injustices and harm done to Jews, we cannot forget that we consider untrue and deeply harmful the use by many of the concept of what is called “Polish anti-Semitism” as an especially threatening form of that anti-Semitism; and in addition, frequently connecting the concentration camps not with those who were actually involved with them, but with Poles in a Poland occupied by the Germans. Speaking of the unprecedented extermination of Jews, one cannot forget and even less pass over in silence the fact that the Poles as a nation were one of the first victims of the same criminal racist ideology of Hitler’s Nazism.

The same land, which for centuries was the common fatherland of Poles and Jews, of blood spilled together, the sea of horrific suffering and of injuries shared – should not divide us but unite us. For this commonality cries out to us – especially the places of execution and, in many cases, common graves. We Christians and Jews are also united in our belief in one God, the Creator and Lord of the entire universe, who created man in his image and likeness. We are united by the commonly accepted ethical principles included in the Ten Commandments, crowned by the love of God and neighbor. We are united in our respect for the biblical books of the Old Testament as the word of God and by common traditions of prayer. Last, we are united in the common hope of the final coming of the kingdom of God. Together we await the Messiah, the Savior, although we, believing that he is Jesus Christ of Nazareth – await not his first, but his final coming, no more in the poverty of the manger in Bethlehem, but in power and glory.

The most important way to overcome the difficulties that still exist today is the establishment of a dialogue, which would lead to the elimination of distrust, prejudices and stereotypes, and to mutual acquaintance and understanding based on respect for our separate religious traditions as well as opening the way to cooperation in many fields. It is important, moreover, that while doing this, we learn to experience and appreciate the proper religious contexts of Jews and Christians as they are lived by Jews and Christians themselves.

We conclude our pastoral homily, dear brothers and sisters, recalling the recent statement of the Holy Father about our common temporal and final destinies: “The (Jewish) people who lived with us for many generations remained with us after the terrible death of many millions of their sons and daughters. Together we wait for the day of judgment and resurrection” (Speech to Poles during the Wednesday audience, Sept. 26, 1990).

Commending to the merciful God all the victims of force and hatred, we bless you from our hearts, praying that “the God of peace may be always with you” (Phil 4:9).