There was a sense of celebration throughout from the first evening when a symphony entitled “The Council “ (2014) was performed by a small youth orchestra and conducted by its composer Federico Corrubolo. The work was written to represent the events of the Second Vatican Council based on excerpts from Yves Congar’s journal of the Council. It had the classical four movements of a symphony but included the reading of passages from Congar’s journal though one passage was from a volume by Marco Morselli describing the encounter between Rabbi Jules Isaac and Pope John XIII which turned out to be so significant for Catholic – Jewish relations and consequently for Christian – Jewish relations. The whole piece was exciting because so creative and evocative of the solemnity, diversity of the Council, of the need for mutual listening, accommodation to the views of others, of the struggle, enmities, friendships and the final harmony that produced 16 documents that transformed the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself and its relationship to the world.
Celebratory too was the Papal audience. Just being in a small audience hall, surrounded by marvellous works of art is an experience in itself but somehow Pope Francis was able to communicate that his concern was for people and he seemed unmoved and unconcerned about the pomp and ceremony that inevitably surrounds such events. We had been advised that only the committee of ICCJ and some specially designated people would meet the Pope and please keep the first three rows free for them. But after the speeches and gift giving it was announced that the Pope would meet all of us which he did giving a warm smile and firm handshake to 250 of us.
We also visited the magnificent Great Synagogue which serves the small but ancient Jewish community, a community which predates the Christian community, having had a presence in Rome before the arrival of the Christian apostles, Peter and Paul. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Riccardo Di Segni graciously addressed us, encouraging us in our task and sharing stories of his encounters with Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. This meeting came at the end of a day when we had time to explore some aspects of Rome and get to know the city a bit better.
However, it was not all celebrations and there was work to be done. The programme was very full divided between plenary presentations and workshops. The presentations were mostly delivered by well known academic figures in Christian-Jewish relations and followed an academic format – three presentations in an hour with time for questions. What happened often was that the logistics of moving 250 people around for coffee breaks and meals meant that the plenaries often didn’t start on time, speakers were asked to cut down the time of the talks they had prepared and the time for questions was seriously curtailed. This I found a bit frustrating as there was obviously a lot of expertise among the participants and the conversations around the questions would have been for me the interesting part. There were a lot of words spoken over the three days. Many, if not all of the papers, will find their way into publications and eventually will be published in the conference proceedings. This will be a good reminder of what was said for there was just too much to take in. What I am left with, however, are some thoughts and ideas that struck me as interesting and gave much food for thought.
One of these came during the discussion time following an early talk on the Jewish Community in Rome by Dr Anna Foa. Speaking of the Jewish ghetto Dr Foa stressed that the Jewish community were there for the purpose of conversion, that the ghetto had open doors which allowed a Jewish presence in Rome and peaceful cohabitation between Christians and Jews. But a new take on the idea of ghetto was that the Catholic Church had had a ghetto imposed on it when the loss of the Papal States meant it retreated into the Vatican State, separating it from the enlightenment and social development of Rome. This was an interesting take on the Vatican State or the Holy See as it’s often called and perhaps describes a mentality that could be describes as closed and defensive until the winds of change blew through it at the Second Vatican Council.
A second thought that has stayed with me came from Dr Ed Kessler who talked about how a parent does not take the love from an older child to give it to another when a younger sibling is born. Rather it is possible to love both children equally though maybe differently. So too with God. To enter into a covenantal relationship with one people does not invalidate or do away with a covenant made to an earlier people. For God it is possible to have different covenantal relationships with different peoples. This struck me as a good image for interfaith relations even with those faiths that don’t think in terms of covenants.
There were of course many other moments and thoughts – the recognition of how dramatically Nostra Aetate had changed the relationship between Christians and Jews, how good it was that we had moved on from the charge of deicide to recognising the authenticity of the Jewish covenant, how important it was to stress anti-semitism as sin, how exciting it was to revisit our early post-biblical history and realise that the separation between our two communities had taken longer than is often suggested and more. All of this gave a foundation for future challenges and developments and in the light of the good spirit and friendship that prevailed the future looks bright.
Sister Isabel Smyth