By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 13, 2005
What Catholic educators—including two from St. Pius X High School in Atlanta—experienced this summer could not be learned in a book.
They walked the streets of Nazareth, traveled along the Jordan River in the Judean wilderness, and as they reached the Mount of Olives grew awestruck as they beheld Jerusalem.
At sunset they celebrated Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, in a Jewish home and later worshiped at the 800-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulcher built above the tomb of Christ. They felt the breeze of the Sea of Galilee and placed their hands on the wall where Jesus is said to have stopped on the Via Dolorosa. They visited the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where they studied the horrors of World War II. And they heard Jewish leaders express excitement over the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI in continuing Pope John Paul II’s legacy of reconciliation with Judaism—including the new pope’s visit this past summer to a German synagogue.
St. Pius X theology teachers Dennis Ruggiero and Father Dan Rogaczewski were among some 30 Catholic educators from across the United States who joined Jewish colleagues on a trip to Israel to learn firsthand about Judaism, Israel and Jewish-Catholic relations. They will incorporate the insights they gained into the classes they teach. The trip was held July 31-Aug. 10 and began with lectures at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. The trip affected Ruggiero profoundly.
“I have been teaching theology for 17 years and experiencing Israel firsthand was life-changing because the roots of our faith come from there,” he said. “ One cannot truly understand Jesus and his message outside of a Jewish context. When I read Scripture, especially the Gospels, it means so much more to me now because of that experience. Also, to walk where Jesus and the apostles walked—the Gospels come alive. There is a transforming power, a transforming experience that you walk away from, and academically what it did for me I can’t get in a book.”
Entitled “Bearing Witness,” the program is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Anti-Defamation League, which is the leading international organization fighting anti-Semitism. The program is endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Educational Association. Initiated in 1997, it has had some 700 participants and is designed to educate Catholic teachers on contemporary Judaism, the Holocaust, and the history of anti-Semitism. This was the program’s first Israel trip.
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, a trip leader who is the ADL director of interfaith affairs, is also a member of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the official Jewish body for relations with the Holy See. He was with the committee when it met in June with Pope Benedict.
The rabbi hailed the program as a practical manifestation of the landmark 1965 Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate. In its discussion of relations between Catholics and non-Christian religions, the document condemned anti-Semitism, rejected the concept that Jews are collectively responsible for Christ’s death, and stressed the need for reconciliation and dialogue between Catholics and Jews.
“This (program) is the embodiment of what Nostra Aetate tried to put into practice,” the rabbi said. “Nostra Aetate really demanded that Jews and Catholics reexamine their relationship and that Catholics begin to understand the Jewishness of Jesus. That was an important part of Pope John Paul’s pontificate. This (program) made that real. We were able to bring Catholics to Israel to see where Jesus and the Jesus movement began and to understand where the roots of anti-Judaism came from and how that over time morphed into anti-Semitism.”
The fellowship among Catholics and Jews was integral to the trip, he said.
“That was critical, how Catholic educators were able to relate to one another and me as a rabbi on the trip and other leaders on the trip. There was certainly a human dimension that was probably most important,” the rabbi said.
Just as Pope John Paul II experienced Nazi atrocities while growing up as a young man in Poland with Jewish friends, the rabbi noted that Pope Benedict XVI, while growing up in Nazi Germany, witnessed the escalation of prejudice and anti-Semitism into an ideology of hatred. When Pope Benedict spoke with members of the official Jewish delegation at the Vatican, he emphasized that Jewish dialogue is a priority for his pontificate, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor said.
Ruggiero and St. Pius X history teacher LeyAnna Messick first participated in a summer institute at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta in 1997; a few years later they decided to teach a class together on the Holocaust. They’re now in their sixth year teaching the course and have added studies on other genocides and lessons about the necessity to act courageously in faith for what is right. Ruggiero attended a Bearing Witness program in 2001 and now serves on the advisory board for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and is an Alfred Lerner Fellow at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
The trip “ was incredible,” said Ruggiero. “I was honored to be one of 30 teachers selected.”
“The Jewish scholars and rabbis who were with us are excited about Benedict XVI that he’ll continue the legacy of Pope John Paul II,” he said. The papal visit to a German synagogue in August “was huge.”
Father Rogaczewski was invited because the travelers needed a priest to participate in the trip.
“By the grace of God, I was available,” he said.
In an interview between classes at St. Pius, Ruggiero and Father Rogaczewski recalled one lecture by a Georgetown professor that described how Christian anti-Semitism began as the Gospel spread beyond the Holy Land and the context of Jesus’ Jewish identity was lost.
“Part of coming back into dialogue is in recovering the Jewish roots of the New Testament. It’s pretty clear that was a priority for Pope John Paul II,” Father Rogaczewski said.
Ruggiero recalled hearing at Yad Vasham, the Holocaust museum in Israel, the Jewish perspective that Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church didn’t speak out or take action forcefully enough against Nazism. He and his colleague teach an entire unit on the highly politicized controversy over this pope, he said. While there have been several books defaming Pope Pius XII as ‘Hitler’s pope,’ Ruggiero noted there have been two more positive books recently published about him, “The Pius War” by Joseph Bottum and Rabbi David Dalin, and “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” by Rabbi Dalin, which asserts that the Catholic Church saved more Jews than any other secular or religious institution in the world under Pope Pius XII’s instruction to clergy.
Ruggiero said the defaming books “omit certain archival documents and findings from the Vatican, and that is a passion of mine that I use in the Holocaust class that LeyAnna and I teach here.” However, hearing the Yad Vasham perspective “is part of the learning experience,” he said. “That’s part of the dialogue that has to continue.”
Trip leader Paul Wieser, the director of the ADL Braun Holocaust Institute and a Catholic, said the program explores how anti-Judaism existed among many Christians for centuries due, in part, to the concept that Jews collectively were responsible for deicide, and that the new covenant through Jesus superceded God’s covenant through Abraham with the Jewish people.
While official church documents never advocated anti-Semitism, this thinking contributed to it as it “permeated catechesis and even found its way into liturgy.” He said that in some societies this engrained “blame” contributed to a “sort of paralysis of the mind” and tempted many Christians to respond as passive bystanders or even perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts.
The Bearing Witness program “allows educators—for some of them for the very, very first time—to see the relationship between the two communities in a different light,” Wieser said. “What it allowed them to do is explore the realities of the history of this relationship and how it has impacted Catholic thought and teaching and even Catholic liturgy. Looking at that and examining that relationship allows the teachers to first of all understand the significance of closer ties between the two communities.”
It also allows them “to rediscover how close we are in so many things and to stress how we are similar rather than how we are different and to try to explore ways to strengthen the bond,” Wieser said.
As Catholics, “we share in the same promises God gave to Abraham,” he continued. “It’s the same promise, and it never changes, and we share in that. Being where Jews live brings it home.”
He said that the leadership of Pope John Paul II caused “one of those historical revolutions … turning on its head the way Catholics view the Jewish faith.”
“What John Paul said that the church did not do for centuries is to keep the dignity of (every single) individual in focus,” he said. “Hopefully every pope keeps this in very clear focus as something we should all strive for.”
While the painful past was explored, the majority of the trip, including lectures by scholars and religious leaders, focused more on issues now facing the Jewish state and interreligious relations. Catholics on the trip were delighted to hear a lecture from the papal nuncio to Israel Archbishop Pietro Sambi.
Father Rogaczewski was deeply moved as a priest to visit the Holy Land for the first time. He laid his hands on the wall, which, according to tradition, Jesus touched on his way to Calvary. It was “powerfully transforming.”
“It’s to be able to say I’ve felt, I’ve tasted (the Holy Land). I’ve felt the breeze of the Sea of Galilee. I’ve walked the streets of Nazareth. I’ve come down the Jordanian River valley. We stopped at Capernaum. To be able to say, this was Peter’s house, and to be able to say, this was the synagogue where Jesus worshiped, nothing is able to take the place of that,” he said.
“And it also helps you understand when the Crusaders go back to the Holy Land, why does Helena, the mother of Constantine, look to find the Holy Sepulcher. Just being in the place is so powerful; you can see why they were so interested, the Crusaders and other people who’ve gone back, to find where the (sacred) places were. It’s this deeper reality.”
The priest said he plans to apply his insights from the trip to his class on Catholic social teaching in which students discuss a book about French villagers who had the courage to hide Jews from slaughter during World War II.
“Why was this in this village and not in other places?” the priest asked. The reason is “pretty clear, and that’s what I want my students to get—that these people took their faith seriously and tried to live it.”
As the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI begins a new chapter in formal Jewish-Catholic dialogue, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor is hopeful there will be more peace-building and reconciliation through initiatives such as Bearing Witness. The dialogue presents opportunities to go deeper, he said, and to learn more about each religion’s most important concepts such as covenant and mission.
“We have a lot of work to do, but the last 40 years have been extremely productive and a blessing. We have learned to enter into each other’s spaces and we’ve begun to have discussions, but now it’s time to dialogue,” he said.