March 4, 2004

A Bond of Trust, Compassion and Faith

One of the great blessings of being the Archbishop of New York is the opportunity to come to know and work with the largest Jewish community in the world. As a young priest, my principal assignment for almost seven years was to relate to and join forces with various religious and ethnic communities including the African-American community, the Protestant and Orthodox communities, and the Jewish community, on behalf of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

The experience was in every sense positive. For example, as regards the Jewish community, I was privileged to be in daily contact with the rabbinate, the principal Jewish charitable organizations and many of the most prominent Jewish cultural institutions. Accordingly, when I was asked to address a major Jewish social service agency shortly after my assignment as Archbishop of New York, the retired executive director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the retired executive director of the Chicago branch of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations both kindly sent statements introducing me to the agency and its staff as a friend and, indeed, a trusted friend.

What I was to find in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations during my first weeks and months here in New York was truly inspiring. Both of my immediate predecessors, Terence Cardinal Cooke and John Cardinal O’Connor, were not only respected in the Jewish community: they were quite simply loved. Never in my almost four years as archbishop have I heard even a word of criticism from representatives of the Jewish community of New York for these two wise and compassionate servants of the Church. What I inherited from them and the clergy, religious and laity who worked with them was a treasure trove of respect and trust between members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ and the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Thus it is that, for no merit of my own, I have been regularly called upon to participate in many of the most important events in the life of the Jewish community here in our beloved city. One that comes immediately to mind is the rededication of the splendid Central Synagogue in 2001, when I was asked to bring the prayerful best wishes of the Catholic faithful to the crowd that filled Lexington Avenue for blocks. Another is the funeral of Ambassador Max Raab in Temple Emanu-El in 2002, when I joined a senator, a member of Congress and the ambassador’s eldest son in delivering eulogies to celebrate the life of one of our nation’s most effective and distinguished diplomats. Yet another is the inauguration of the new Morgenthau Wing of the Museum of Jewish History in 2003, when I spoke along with four of New York’s most admired Jewish leaders about the Holocaust and the commitment of every decent human being that such a horror never happen again.

Far more important, however, than any of these involvements of mine are the noble, long-standing relationships that have been developed over the past several decades between our Catholic parishes and charitable institutions on the one hand and numerous Jewish congregations and agencies of social service on the other throughout the three boroughs and seven northern counties which the archdiocese serves. Our two peoples – Catholic and Jewish – feed the hungry together, care for the homeless together, attend together to the needs of the sick and disabled, and champion together the rights of the needy and downtrodden of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. And all of this they do quietly and generously, seeking nothing more than to live out the tenets of their faith in loving service to others.

In the light of so much that is good and holy, I have no doubt that the Catholic and Jewish communities of New York will handle with grace and wisdom any and all upset that might result from the forthcoming film, "The Passion of the Christ." I do not know the filmmaker, nor have I seen the film in any of its editions. Nonetheless, from the brief "clips" that have been shown on television and the "still photos" that have appeared in the printed media, I believe that one can safely conclude that what will appear on our movie screens will entail a good deal of extreme human suffering. The images are bloody and stark; and for some they may on this score alone be quite unacceptable, apart from any purely religious considerations.

Those who have seen the film and admire it respond that the Gospel story it tells is shot through with extreme human suffering. It is a tale of incredible torment that culminates in an unspeakably painful death. It could hardly be free of immense suffering if it were to have any validity whatever.

All of this we understand. Still, one may legitimately question whether such a representation exceeds the limits of propriety, good taste or artistic authenticity. Whether or not this film does exceed these limits, I am not in a position to say. When it is shown, the viewers will make their own judgments; and I am quite sure that their conclusions will be voiced and discussed far and wide.

Far more worrisome, however, is the question of the film and anti-Semitism. The filmmaker insists that he is not an anti-Semite and claims to oppose any and all expressions of anti-Semitism. Some who have seen the film report that they find no anti-Semitism in it. Others who have seen it maintain that it is plainly anti-Semitic. Still others observe that, even if it not be anti-Semitic in itself or in the intention of the filmmaker, it might occasion or deepen anti-Semitism in others.

Should this last forecast be verified, all of us would, of course, be the losers. Hence, we must do everything that we can to avoid such an outcome. To this end, I would offer two suggestions.

First, in our pulpits, our Catholic schools, our catechetical programs and our adult education classes, we need to repeat with clarity and vigor Catholic teaching about the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. The Son of God Made Man chose to sacrifice Himself on Calvary’s cross as a victim for our sins and the sins of all men, women and children of all time. He gave His Life for us. No one took it from Him. This is, and has always been, Catholic doctrine. It must be proclaimed in the clearest of terms, as the Lord Himself proclaims it in the Gospel according to St. John:

"I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. … For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own accord." (Chapter 10, verses 14 to 17)

Second, we must teach "in season and out of season" that any suggestion of enmity toward any individuals or groups because of their race, ethnic background or religion is morally reprehensible and totally rejected by the teaching authorities of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. As regards the Jewish people and the death of the Lord, the matter is crystalline clear in numerous official documents and statements. It will perhaps suffice to mention just two:

The Second Vatican Council: "What was perpetrated against (the Lord) in His Passion cannot be imputed either to all the Jewish people of that time or the Jewish people of our time. … Accordingly, all must be careful that nothing is taught about this matter in preaching or in catechizing that fails to agree with the truth of the Gospel and the Spirit of Christ." (Nostra Aetate, n. 4)

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II: "No ancestral or collective blame can be imputed to the Jews as a people for what happened in Christ’s Passion: not indiscriminately to the Jews of that time, nor to those who came afterwards, nor to those of today." (Address to the Synagogue of Rome, April 13, 1986)

And there are dozens of other such declarations from bishops, theologians, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a host of other official sources. The teaching of the Church could hardly be more clear.

There is, however, a further point to be made. While we are keenly aware of the concerns that have been raised regarding "The Passion of the Christ," we must not forget that the sufferings and death of the Savior are to be objects of the prayer and meditation for all who seek salvation in His name. He gave His life for us on the cross. In the words of St. Paul, He "emptied Himself" of all signs of His divinity and became one of us so that He might be "obedient unto death, even death on a cross." (Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 7 to 8). If a film, a book, a painting, a poem or any other artistic expression can assist us in plumbing the depths of this greatest of all acts of self-sacrifice, we should rejoice. Will this be the effect of the film? Not a few claim that it has been such for them. I pray that this will be the outcome for all.

Permit me to conclude in this way.

A few months ago, Jozef Cardinal Glemp, the Primate of Poland, invited me to come to the venerable city of Czestochowa toward the end of April to celebrate the opening Mass for a Plenary Assembly of the Polish hierarchy. The Mass is scheduled to be held in the Monastery of Jasna Gora, over whose main altar is found the ancient icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so sacred to our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. In a casual conversation with a Catholic layman of the archdiocese, I made a passing reference to the invitation.

"What a coincidence!" he cried. "A new exhibit of Jewish history is to be opened in Czestochowa in April, and I have been asking the sponsors of the exhibit if I might make a contribution to it in your honor. Maybe you could go to see the exhibit during your visit so as to bring the prayers and best wishes of the Catholic community of New York to the Jewish community of Czestochowa."

I faxed a letter to Cardinal Glemp about the proposal, and the next day he faxed me a letter to say how delighted he would be to add a tour of the exhibit to my three days in Poland.

The incident, perhaps not of great importance in itself, does, however, illustrate why I am so confident that the Catholic and Jewish communities of New York will deal with "The Passion of the Christ" with "grace and wisdom," as suggested above. We are two peoples bound together with so much mutual respect and so many works of justice and compassion that our mutual support and sympathy will never be compromised.

For this I will be thanking the Lord in Czestochowa at the monastery of Jasna Gora and during the visit to the Jewish exhibit, just as I will be thanking Him for the great blessing of being part of the marvelously varied and vigorous community that is New York.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York