In 1963, two years into the Second Vatican Council, a second-grade teacher at a Catholic school walked into her classroom and made an announcement to her students. “Children, for the rest of your lives you are going to hear sometimes people say bad things about the Jews, specifically that the Jews killed Christ,” she told them. “This comes directly from Rome: it was never true, it’s not true now, and if you ever hear this in your lives, you are to dispute it and argue against it.”
John Donvan, then a second grader and now an ABC News correspondent, served as the moderator of the Jan. 20 interfaith dialogue at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, “Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate & Chasing Peace.”
He noted that he had never heard negative things said about the Jews. “It hadn’t come up in the first grade,” he joked, but that from then on the significance of the document Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”), which described the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, was etched into his memory.
To honor the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, which was finalized and published 50 years ago, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout joined a close friend of Pope Francis, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, to discuss the document and how they have grown closer to God through their experiences with people of other faiths.
Though Nostra Aetate came from the top down as a Church document, Bishop Knestout believes that interfaith dialogue often begins with individual relationships, something he witnessed as the namesake of a Jewish doctor and close family friend. Though originally his parish priest was hesitant to christen him without an official saint’s name, Bishop Knestout said, “I can think of no better patron than someone whose life was to offer healing and assistance to the human condition.”
Rabbi Skorka’s interest in interfaith dialogue caught the attention of then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis, who approached him and suggested that they work together. In 2010 Rabbi Skorka, who serves as the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, and Archbishop Bergoglio co-wrote a book on interfaith dialogue titled “On Heaven and Earth.” Their friendship has continued to this day, and Rabbi Skorka has visited Pope Francis in Rome and accompanied him on a trip to the Holy Land in 2014.
While still a cardinal, Pope Francis granted on honorary degree to Rabbi Skorka on behalf of the Catholic University of Argentina for his academic contributions. Rabbi Skorka said that the professors there told him such a thing would not have been possible just 10 years ago, because although Catholics and Jews had a pleasant relationship in that country, granting a rabbi such an honor from a Catholic institution would not have been done in earlier times. The ability to recognize anyone for their contributions to the faith no matter what their background is the power of dialogue, said Rabbi Skorka.
Nostra Aetate begins by acknowledging the crucial role of religion in all cultures to answer questions that “stir the hearts of men,” such as their place in their universe, their origin and what happens after death. All religions, though differing in their teaching, “nonetheless often reflect a ray of the Truth which enlightens all men,” says the document.
In the document’s fourth section, the Jewish people are recognized for their special role in God’s plan for the world’s salvation, and the document encourages Jews and Christians to foster friendship between their respective communities for the sake of biblical and theological studies, as well as for fellowship. Nostra Aetate also calls Catholics to be strong advocates for the practice of religious freedom and to decry all instances of anti-Semitism.
The audience was comprised of members of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, as well as members of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, including Father Avelino Gonzalez, that group’s president, who also serves as the director for the Office for Ecumenism and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Washington and as the pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Washington.
In his interfaith work, Father Gonzalez has learned not only about the many tenets of diverse religions but also has put a face to each one of the belief systems, something he believes is a beautiful result of interfaith dialogue. “We’re seeing so much extremism, [and] extremism is basically the dehumanization of the other,” he said. “And so what we’re doing here is demonstrating that the only road to the future of peace is the humanization of the other through dialogue.”
Rabbi Gerry Serotta, the executive director of the interfaith council, is a close friend of Father Gonzalez. “We study the Torah together, we’re just like the pope and his Argentine friend,” joked Rabbi Serotta. As long-time campus minster at George Washington University and a member of Clergy beyond Borders, Rabbi Serotta has seen the importance of interfaith cooperation both on campus and throughout the world. “Dialogue is a vehicle to get us to work together to improve God’s world,” he said. “If we don’t have it, we won’t understand each other, and we can’t work together.”