"Rejoice in the Lord"

by Victor Donovan, C.P.

Victor Donovan, C.P.The only reason I have for telling my story is due to the request of a theologian whom I greatly admire. He feels that while Christian ecumenism is important, yet our Christian understanding of our Jewish roots is just as important, if not more so. These are also my sentiments as well. It is therefore with a great deal of pleasure that I set down my ideas on paper with the hope that future priests will feel the same way toward Jewish-Catholic Relations as I do. This also gives me the opportunity of rendering my thanks to God from whom all good thoughts come.

Our old theology manuals never had to deal with the morality of such awful horrors as the 20th century has witnessed. I only need to mention the genocide of the Holocaust which caused cynics to sneer, "God is dead!" One man who has stood up against all these prophets of doom and gloom is our present Holy Father, John Paul II. His example and teaching on the dignity of man has been an inspiration to the world. One of my main purposes in writing these memories is to show how his teaching on our relations with our Jewish brethren has been carried out in some small way in the life of one ordinary priest. It is told with the hope that others might respond to the call of our Holy Father and carry out his message of reconciliation to these goodhearted people.

After passing through the public schools of my hometown, Randolph, south of Boston I entered Boston College and graduated in 1930. Fascinated by stories of Passionist missionaries in China as told in the pages of their magazine, "The Sign," I applied for entrance into the Passionist Congregation. After being accepted I spent six years in preparation for my ordination to the priesthood in 1936. Another young priest, Father Fidelis Rice, and I were chosen for further Sacred Scripture studies in Rome.

While traveling in Germany during the summer of 1939, we had our plans for another study interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. We returned to Rome for a short period before being urged by our government to leave that city and return to the U.S.A.

Shipboard Friends

It was during our return on board the S.S. Washington that I first came into contact with Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler's clutches in Germany. I made friends with them and learned their stories of suffering at first hand. Their personal experiences made a lasting impression on me. They forced me to read and to ponder upon the evil of anti-Semitism to which no one is immune.

It has been said that God has ways of drawing straight with crooked lines. This was enough to explain why I, with my new interest in Jewish people, was appointed to teach Hebrew to our Passionist seminarians, along with the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, which are commonly called the "Old Testament."

In the same month of August 1942, when I began my first year of teaching, the life of a brilliant Carmelite nun was being snuffed out in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland, found "guilty" only of being Jewish. Her name was Edith Stein, who died as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D., and who is venerated in the Church as "Blessed."

Sister Teresa Benedicta, O.C.D.

St Edith SteinThe conjunction of these two events: her death and my first days of teaching seemed more than a coincidence to me. I took it to mean that God was asking me to continue her work in furthering a better understanding between Catholics and Jews. That is why I quote from her writings frequently.

Little was known about this unique individual during the war years. But the details of her life and her reputation as a philosopher grew steadily. Her fame spread throughout our college campuses. Her death at the hands of the Nazis made her a symbol of the six million Jews who died as victims of Germany's anti-Semitism. It was at that point that the Holocaust became real to me. The six million acquired the face of one Carmelite nun.

The more I read her writings, especially "The Science of the Cross," the more I came to regard her as my sister-in-the- spirit. Her spirit was that of our holy founder, St. Paul of the Cross. She adopted the same motto to define her life as he had done: "Ave Crux: Spes Unica" ("Behold the Cross, our only hope"). She proved this to her friends who urged her to remain in the world in her profession as an outstanding educator. Her answer was, "It is not human activity that can save us now, but the sufferings of Christ. To have part in these; that is my desire."

Needless to say, her words served to deepen my devotion to the mystery of our Lord's sufferings and death. They made me more aware of Christ's Passion in the modern world. This was one of the principal teachings of the Passionist Rule of Life. It was in the same spirit that I began my teaching of the Sacred Scripture. Instead of a dull textbook presentation of the history of Moses and the Chosen People in their wanderings in the desert, I encouraged my students to see the same divine providence at work in the lives of men and women they passed every day of their lives on the streets of America.

The hidden life: hagiographic essays, meditations, spiritual texts, Volume IV of the Collected Works of bl. Edith Stein.

Happy Memories

I have been blessed with many happy memories of Jewish friends. They have been living examples of the Vatican II Council's teaching on the Church's relations with the Jewish people. It said: "As this sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it recalls the spiritual bond linking the people of the New Covenant with Abraham's stock . . ." A similar truth had been stated by Pope Pius XI, who said in 1939, while warning Catholics of the sin of anti-Semitism: "Spiritually we are all Semites!"

My efforts at writing articles for the Catholic Press on Jewish subjects, combined with my work in the classroom, often brought invitations to speak to Jewish and ecumenical gatherings. I also had opportunities to preach in pulpits along the eastern seaboard, ranging from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, by way of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, MD.

These invitations were not due to any eloquence of mine -- far from it. They were due, rather, to the limited number of priests active in the field of Jewish-Catholic relations. Happily, all this has changed since Vatican Council II. The number of Catholic speakers in this field today has increased a hundred-fold. Another giant step in the field of education is the number of our best colleges and seminaries where Rabbis serve on the faculty.

The Synagogue Visit

At this point in my story I feel compelled to recall the visit Pope John Paul II made to the oldest synagogue in Rome. News of this great event was flashed around the world, for this was the first time in almost 2,000 years -- since the days of St. Peter -- that a Vicar of Christ had ever set foot inside a Jewish house of worship.

In words that brought tears to the eyes of the Jewish congregation, our Holy Father thanked Chief Rabbi Elio Toff "who is now receiving me with great openness of heart and a profound sense of hospitality." He also thanked the entire community "who in so many ways have worked to insure that it should be at one and the same time a reality and symbol."

The far-reaching effects of this papal visit will be productive of good for years to come. Dr. Eugene Fisher of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs underlined the importance of this event when he said, "Geographically, the pope's visit to the synagogue was a short one -- less than one mile. Historically and spiritually, it may have been the longest pilgrimage ever undertaken by a bishop of Rome. . . with this gesture, the pope was telling all Christians something quite significant about the relationship between the Church and Jewish people." ("Catholics and Jews: What We Have in Common," Liguori Publications)

In other words, the Holy Father was making it clear to all Catholics that "the Jewish religion is not `extrinsic' to us, but in a certain way `intrinsic' to our religion." He went on to say, "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 you are our elder brothers." The last words reminded me of what Pope John XXIII had said in his opening words of welcome to a Jewish delegation at the Vatican: "I am Joseph, your brother."

Every priest will agree with our Holy Father when he said, "We have a relationship with Judaism which we do not have with any other religion." We see this in the breviary that we read daily. Its psalms are the same as read in the syngogue. The structure of our liturgy is similar to the ritual of the temple. The vestments that we wear at the altar have their origin in the garments of the High Priest in Jerusalem.

Friendship with Jewish People

My friendship with the Jewish people has enabled me to share in their cheerful humor -- for which they are famous. An example of this is also associated with Hannukah as follows: I had sent my greetings for the season to a Jewish friend of long standing, Herman Wouk, author of the classic of the sea, The Caine Mutiny. I had long been an admirer of his writings for their high moral standards, beginning with his first books, Aurora Dawn and "City Boy."

Mr. Wouk responded to my greetings by sending me the following doggerel: "I much enjoy the fun of an odd Irishman named Donovan, who quite despite his monnicker, greets me with `Happy Hanukah.' To him I answer `Happy Yule.' I trust it won't sound stiff or cool. `Joyeux Noel' would ring more fair. But not while Airman's in the air."

It was easy to see the humor in his verse. "Airman" was the character in Wouk's book "Marjorie Morningstar" who changed his name from `Saul Ehrman' to `Noel Ehrman.' Marjorie's mother wanted to know why and asked her daughter. "Noel means Christmas, doesn't it? Nobody calls a Jewish boy `Noel.' You might as well call a Catholic boy `Passover.'"

"A Jew for a Day"

On November 4, 1974 I accompanied, at their invitation, a bus load of Jewish men and women in their protest meeting against Yassir Arafat's appearance at the UN in New York City.

My only regret was that there were not more of the clergy there that day. My wish to share my spiritual experience with others at home prompted me to put my reflections on paper. My story, titled "A Jew for a Day," was published in our diocesan newspaper and later quoted in part by the Jewish press.

One result of my story was the invitation I received to participate in a Holocaust Observance as "The Righteous Gentile." My role in the ceremony was to represent all the Christians who had risked their lives in shielding Jewish people from the clutches of the Nazis. Six candles on the menorah represented the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. At that moment, as I stepped forward to light the Seventh Candle, I considered this one of the greatest compliments in my life.

My Silver Jubilee in 1962 was spent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a gift from my brother. It was all that you read and dream about. The two places that stand out in my memory were Jerusalem -- where our Lord redeemed the world by his death and resurrection; and Mount Carmel, where a beautiful monastery dedicated to our Blessed Mother overlooks the blue Mediterranean.

Jerusalem, at the time of my first visit, was a city divided by barbed wire, keeping Moslems apart from their Jewish neighbors. A narrow strip of barren soil -- no more than a hundred yards -- came between them. This was called "No Man's Land." It seemed ridiculous to watch our Arab guide wheeling our baggage half way across the open space before returning to his side of the border. The Israeli guide thereupon came out to carry our bags into Israel. The two men were not permitted to meet nor to exchange a word of greeting. I wondered what our Lord would have said at such a gesture of contempt for one another!

Happily, when I returned to Jerusalem in 1972 as a guest of the Jewish Federation, I found an undivided city where I could walk the "Via Dolorosa," the Way of the Cross, and visit the shrine of Yad Vashem -- dedicated to the six million victims of the Holocaust -- without undergoing a police inspection.

Great Memorial Shrines

It seems more than a coincidence that the two great memorial shrine -- the Holy Sepulchre and the Yad Vashem -- should be within the same city limits. Both commemorate innocent victims who suffered death at the hands of men driven by hatred and prejudice. Only love can overcome such evil. Maybe God is trying to tell us something, if we would only listen. If Jews and Christians can place memorials to their dead in close proximity to each other, why can't they live together in friendship? God forbid that we need another memorial to remind us of this lesson!

My Golden Jubilee occurred on May 30, 1986. It was made more jubilant by the church's announcement that Pope John Paul would beatify Edith Stein on May lst of the following year. This was delightful news for me. It seemed as though God was bringing us together again. And so with the blessing of my superior and the support of my friends, I flew to Germany for the solemn ceremony. On May 1st, with 100,000 people in the Cologne soccer stadium, I witnessed Edith Stein being elevated to the honors of the altar as Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D.

The Scriptural readings in the liturgy gave me a further feeling of being close to her. The words which the Pope had chosen from St. Paul were, "May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through it, the world has been crucified to me and I to the world." (Gal, 6:14) The Holy Father singled out all the ways in which Edith had experienced the cross in her life -- especially in her death at Auschwitz. He added that her name should have been "Blessed by the Cross" rather than "Benedicta of the Cross." Because she knew that she was "married" in the Sign of the Cross. She was also convinced that her "heavenly groom" would introduce her to the profound mysteries of the cross, unknown to her at that time.

I like to linger over the impression that this great event had on me. It was the equivalent of an annual retreat. The Holy Father drew attention to the same features in Edith Stein's life that are also emphasized by our retreat masters in their consideration of the Passion of Christ.

He said: "There is a vocation for suffering with Christ and by that means for involvement in his salvation . . . Christ continues to live and suffer in his members. The sufferings gone through in union with the Lord are his sufferings and are a fruitful part of the great plan of salvation."

Words similar to these are found in our rule which states, "Our vocation as Passionists prompts us to familiarize ourselves thoroughly with the Passion of Christ, both in history and in the lives of people today, for the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of his Mystical Body form one mystery of salvation."

Pope John Paul, in his admiration of Edith Stein, has been the great inspiration of my life for finding Christ in the modern world. He called attention to all those who labor in the field of bettering our relations with those who suffer. He said, "Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross' life was a synthesis of a history full of deep wounds, wounds that still hurt, and for the healing of which responsible men and women have continued to work up to the present day." I thought of myself as being one of those "men and women" and felt rewarded for the years spent in the apostolate of good will.

The Dialogue Ahead

If I were to describe the present state of our relationship with the Jews, it would have to be in the words of Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee who said, "My feeling is that we are but scratching the surface of the depths of the dialogue ahead of us. I hope we have the perseverance and the courage to keep going, even if at times the progress seems slow . . ." (Origins, 4/30/92)

It is my hope that when the Church's theologians come to write their teachings on anti-Semitism that they make mention of Edith Stein in their deliberations. It was she in 1933 who first signalled the need for the Holy See to speak out against hatred of her people. It was her hope that Pope Pius XI would issue an encyclical in condemnation of Nazism. She failed in her efforts. But who is to say that she is not going to see fruits of her prayers now from heaven?

The realists are right when they say that it is too soon to congratulate ourselves on removing all stains of anti-Semitism. There is plenty of evidence that this evil is now reappearing in a most dangerous form -- namely, of intellectual elitism on our college campuses. It has become the "in" thing to cast doubt on the factual history of the Holocaust. The "revisionist" theory teaches that "the Holocaust never occurred." This false claim must be answered by the erection and maintenance of more Holocaust museums and memorials. The record of the greatest crime against humanity must be preserved for future generations by means of books, films, recordings and even carved in stone.

Edith Stein Guild

The battle against anti-Semitism, like any struggle in war, is not won simply by plans of the high command alone, but by the struggle of the foot soldiers. In our battle against the world's anti-Semites we have a spiritual force gathered together under the banner of "The Edith Stein Guild."

This organization was formed ten years prior to Vatican Council II. A small group of men and women, saddened by the increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the New York City area, came together to fight the spread of bigotry by means of education and common friendship. They are now based in Our Lady of Victory Church at 60 Williams Street, New York City.

Their purpose is to make Catholics more aware of their roots in Judaism, while at the same time making amends for past injuries to the Jewish people by extending sincere friendship to the present generation.

Rabbis and priests alike have found the work of this group beneficial to all. They see it as a practical proof of the principle that says: "Education begets understanding; and understanding begets good will upon which all future success depends."

I have now reached that point in life in which I feel like another Moses standing on the heights of Mount Nebo, looking toward the Promised Land. I also look forward to better days in the land of Jewish-Catholic relations.

We are told that Moses was not given the privilege of "crossing over" into the Promised Land. That was left to those who came after him. He ended his days with the happiness of knowing that he had done his work in bringing his people thus far. I, too, have a similar feeling with the conviction that the priests of tomorrow will enter into a new world of Jewish-Catholic relations far better than in my day. This leaves me with the joy of repeating again, out of gratitude to God: "Rejoice in the Lord!"

Fr Victor Donovan, C.P., 1908 - 2004, was a professor of biblical studies who founded the Edith Stein Guild in 1951.

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