We’ve all heard the number and what it signifies. At least six million Jews were slaughtered during the Nazi reign in Germany. Now, a 1,250 page book has just been released which simply, dramatically, and graphically drives home just some of the impact of the Shoah. Phil Chernofsky has published And Every Single One Was Someone. Take a look at these pictures from the book and read more about it HERE.
There are no names in the entire book; rather, it simply lists the word “Jew”: “and every single one was someone.” The book itself has garnered mixed reviews from some who praise it’s impact and others who say that many of the victims were not nameless and that to approach the project with total anonymity denies their personhood. However one feels about the book, it nonetheless captures the stunning and shocking impact of the Shoah.
This got me thinking again about the landmark document from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate. This year will mark the 49th year since it was promulgated, and although it has made a huge impact, so much more remains to do! A few years ago I was honored to give a short talk to an annual gathering of Jews and Catholics who were part of an ongoing dialogue. Here’s what I said that night:
The Significance of Nostra Aetate 45 Years Later
Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D.
I have been asked to do in a few minutes what could not possibly be done in a lifetime of study and reflection. What can I say in so brief a time that has not already been said and written so much more eloquently by so many, some of whom are with us here this evening, during the forty-five years since the promulgation of this ground-breaking document at the Second Vatican Council? I will attempt two modest things: first, to reflect on the nature of Nostra Aetate as a product of the Council itself; and second, to consider once again the most basic implications of the document on our own lives and ministries.
Nostra Aetate, in the final analysis, is not the work of one person, as influential as so many individuals were in its inception and development: John XXIII himself, Jules Isaac, Augustin Bea, to name just a few. Rather, the document, after years of often heated debates, is the result of the collective work of the Catholic bishops of the world gathered together in solemn Council. But what led to this realization by the bishops of the Council? What events brought them together in the first place, and why did they come? The newly-elected Pope, John XXIII announced his intention to hold a Council in January 1959, but what led him to that point?
If we were asked today to attend a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide conference to determine the future directions of Judaism or the Catholic Church, how would we prepare for that event? We would look back over the events of our lives, to those experiences good and bad which shaped us and challenged us and blessed us. Such a gathering would give us a chance to correct, to inspire, to respond and to lead our people in new directions while valuing the treasures of our Tradition. This precisely what the bishops did as they prepared for the Council. As the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 11, 1962, what experiences did those bishops bring with them? The average age of the Catholic bishops assembled at the Council from 1962 to 1965 was somewhere around 60 – 65 years of age, in other words, their lives and the journey of the 20th century overlapped. They were teenagers during the horrors of that first World War, “the war to end all wars”; they were young men during the emergence of successive totalitarian regimes, only slightly older during a worldwide economic collapse, and many of them had served as priests during the Second World War and Shoah (one young Polish bishop at the Council would later write that World War II was “an abyss of violence, death and destruction never before seen in the world” – Pope John Paul II, 2004 World Day of Peace). Before many of them were out of their 40’s, the nuclear age had begun, followed by the terribly misnamed “Cold” War. It’s helpful to remember that the Cuban Missile crisis occurred during that first session of the Council, and that World War II itself had been over for less than 20 years. In short, if you were a Catholic bishop in 1962, it’s fair to ask: Where were you and what were you doing in 1942? The great Pope John XXIII himself models the kind of thing I’m talking about: he spent a year as a draftee in the Italian army in 1901, returned to the Army during World War I as a priest-chaplain, literally serving in the trenches. He entered the diplomatic service where he spent ten years in Bulgaria, followed by nearly ten more years in Turkey, including most of World War II, where he worked with people like Chaim Barlas to rescue as many Jews as they could from Nazi deportation. Before the end of the War he was in France working on issues of relief and recovery. My point is this: The Second Vatican Council was no pious gathering of religious men who were detached from the challenges of the real world. The reason that Pope John called the Council in the first place was so that all the bishops from around the world could together tackle the very real life and death issues that were affecting all people, not just Catholics. This was not some simple superficial ceremonial event; it was, in fact, an attempt to make faith in God something transformative so that the world would never again find itself in the midst of the tragedies of the first half of the 20th century. It is in this light, then, that the significance of Nostra Aetate must be seen.
It is in this light, then, that we find Nostra Aetate so profound. The statement that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy” could sound rather obvious to some readers today, but for those bishops, this was a realization formed out of the real agonies endured by so many within their own lifetimes. They came to recognize that truth and holiness are not the province of any one church or faith, or form of government or economic system, and that it is only in recognizing this fundamental truth that healing and peace may be found. In a world still reeling from successive wars and atrocities, the bishops found a greater appreciation of our shared scriptures, especially St. Paul’s famous insight that “God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made” (NA 4; Rom 11:28-29). They proclaimed clearly that as a world church, she deplores all hatred, persecution and anti-Semitism.
The significance of Nostra Aetate lies in its challenge to all of us living and serving 45 years later. Nearly all of the bishops who promulgated the document have now passed into eternal life, but we remain. They brought their own life experiences, and the experiences of their people, into the Council aula, with the hope of transforming the world into a place where all could live in peace and justice. That mission has not changed for us. We too must bring our own experiences to bear on the life of the world that still suffers from poverty, war, discrimination, injustice, violence and death. In what ways, concretely, can we search together for Truth and Holiness? In what ways, concretely, can we work together – as sisters and brothers in a shared heritage – to end all hatred and persecution? Just as the bishops then together hammered out a document, a mission, to lay before the world, we “in our own time” (NOSTRA AETATE) must do the same.