BY JEFFREY KIRBY
Last month, Bishop Robert J. Baker and a small group of Catholic bishops and Jewish rabbis from around the United States attended an interfaith program and pilgrimage with the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. The center and its programs are a part of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
The aims of this endeavor were to further dialogue and friendly relations between the two religious bodies through personal encounters and shared discussion. Another purpose was to educate the bishops and rabbis and heighten authentic friendships.
The pilgrimage took the group to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Poland, the neighboring city of Cracow, and Rome.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps by Allied forces where millions of Jews were put to death in gas chambers and ovens. To prepare for the visit, the participants were asked to read, “With My Last Breath, Let Me See Jerusalem,” a graphic memoir of a Holocaust survivor.
“Walking together with our Jewish brothers and sisters through Auschwitz helped us to understand what it really means,” Bishop Baker said in an interview with The Miscellany. “It gave us special insight into the feelings of the Jewish people of abandonment to extermination.
“The Jewish community felt abandoned by the rest of the world,” he said. “The only reason for their execution was that they were Jews.”
The principal document on the church’s relationship with the Jewish people is the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate.” This year marks its 40th anniversary. In Chapter 4, the documents reads, “Since the spiritual patrimony common to all Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies, as well as of fraternal dialogues.”
This past August, during a visit to a Cologne synagogue, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Today I wish to reaffirm that I intend to continue on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people.” He went on to encourage “sincere and trustful dialogue.”
The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding program is the result of these calls by the church toward greater openness. The bishops attended several lectures, including one titled, “Where in Heaven is God in all of this?” led by Rabbi Joseph Ehren-kratz, center director. They were also hosted by various church and civil leaders, including Archbishop Stanislaus Dziwisz of Cracow, the former private secretary of Pope John Paul II. The bishops and rabbis were able to have a joint Scripture study in Isaiah 56 and Psalm 23.
“The pilgrimage was historic, in the sense that we can look back over these 40 and 60 years on the journey our church has made in relations with the Jewish community,” Bishop Baker said.
Charleston has one of the oldest Jewish communities in America. The city has always had a history of good relations between Jews and Christians.
“That needs to be encouraged,” Bishop Baker said. “This journey will certainly help me to foster continued good relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
In Cologne, Pope Benedict said that all people have the responsibility of handing down to youth “the torch of hope” that God has given to Jews and Christians, “so that ‘never again’ will the forces of evil come to power, and that future generations, with God’s help, may be able to build a more just and peaceful world, in which all people have equal rights and are equally at home.”
Asserting that call, Bishop Baker encouraged all Catholics in the state of South Carolina to get to know better any people from the Jewish faith in their communities, and to deepen their understanding of the Jewish roots of Christianity. He said that establishing friendships with people of the Jewish faith is the first step in understanding and will result in the elimination of prejudice and the kinds of attitudes that tragically led to the Holocaust.
“No person bearing the name ‘Christian’ can foster the kind of hostility that led to the building of concentration camps … daily we must all repent of our sins, prejudice and indifference that could lead to even greater atrocities,” the bishop said. “Charity is to be extended to everyone, at all times, in all places!”
Jeffrey Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston.