On this date, 34 years ago, John Paul II made a historic visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome where he greeted Chief Rabbi, Prof. Elio Toaff.
And so tonight I re-read John Paul II’s address that he gave on the occasion, which contributed to a turning point in Jewish-Catholic relations.
While there’s quite a lot to this speech, the phrase that has stuck over the decades is the last two words from this particular paragraph:
The first is that the church of Christ discovers her ”bond” with Judaism by ”searching into her own mystery.” The Jewish religion is not ”extrinsic” to us, but in a certain way is ”intrinsic” to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
While John Paul II clearly meant to hone in on the historicity that Judaism preceded Christianity and that Christians ought to have affection for the “common spiritual patrimony” that exists between them, this wasn’t quite how it was received.
Consider, for example, this 2013 article, “Pope Francis Calls Jews ‘Big Brothers,’ But It Ain’t a Compliment,” in which Yori Yanover says:
The Pope used theologically significant and degrading terminology to describe Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. The Elder Brother is always the castoff, always the evil one, and always replaced by the younger brother. It wasn’t an off-the-cuff statement of friendship, it was a religious and ideological attack on Jews and Judaism as illegitimate and evil and having been replaced by the “younger brother” – the central component of their “Replacement Theology”. […]
Of course, to understand the full theological meaning of the pope’s “compliment,” kindly refer to your Jewish Bible, where the younger brother always gets the inheritance, as in Jacob vs. Eisav, David vs. his older brothers, Shlomo vs. his older brother Adoniah, etc. The older brother is always dark, brooding, jealous, and not the one favored by God.
Two years ago, I was at that same Great Synagogue of Rome having my own visit with the current chief rabbi.
During the course of our visit, we discussed the “elder brother” motif. “In general, the passage about being elder brothers has been taken for granted and I don’t like it,” he told me, alluding to the aforementioned biblical reasons why.
And so then I asked him, “Have you ever considered what might be a better way for the Church to describe its relationship in a way that would be more appropriate?”
Without hesitating, the Roman rabbi confidently responded, “Simply brothers without degree.”
And since John Paul II was really intent on speaking about Jewish-Catholic relations “not be[ing] a mere ‘co-existence,’ [… but rather] animated by fraternal love”, I’m pretty sure he could go with that, too.