Fall meeting of Catholic-Jewish dialogue focuses on witnessing

.- The fall dialogue between the U.S. bishops and the National Council of Synagogues (NCS) of America Catholic and Jewish leaders took place in early November. Participants discussed their different views of witnessing, recent controversy over a bishops’ statement, and the situation of Christians in the Holy Land. The meeting between representatives from the NCS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) took place at Jewish Theological Seminary on Nov. 11 in Manhattan.

Two speakers discussed the theme “dialogue and witness in the perspective of our faith traditions.”

Rabbi Alan Brill of Seton Hall University said that witness is a less significant category in Jewish theology, a USCCB press release says. For Jews, witnessing means a public proclamation about a special event or a fundamental teaching of Judaism, such as the Sabbath, which is “a witness to God’s creation.”

Jews prefer the terms of “education” and “continuity” to define how faith is passed on within families and cultures, Rabbi Brill told the meeting. The idea of Jews witnessing to their faith only became more prominent recently in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Father Arthur Kennedy of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. explained that for Catholics witness means “uniting one’s life with Jesus Christ, even sacrificing one’s life as a martyr.” Witnessing to the truth in word and action is a fundamental duty, he added.

He said that since the Second Vatican Council Catholics have distinguished authentic witness from a “forced, manipulative, coercive, intimidating and cajoling” kind of proselytism.

According to the USCCB, the priest said that Catholic-Jewish dialogue is a model for inter-religious witnessing that shows both mutual respect for one another’s beliefs and a desire to understand another’s core religious convictions.

This is a dialogue “across the divide of religious belief that maintains a sense of God in our midst,” Fr. Kennedy commented.

Participants in the dialogue discussed the June 18 USCCB document “Note on Some Ambiguities in Reflections on Covenant and Mission.” The original document was authored in 2002 by scholars involved in the USCCB-NCS consultation and caused theological concerns within the Catholic community.

However, the 2009 note on perceived ambiguities contained a sentence that disturbed Jewish dialogue partners. It said that Christian participation in inter-religious dialogue is “always giving witness” to following Christ and “implicitly” invites others to do so.

After interaction with Jewish partners and internal discussion, the bishops re-issued the note without the controversial sentence. They also released the “Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” which said that dialogue “has never been and will never be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism—nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”

Other topics included the plight of Christians in the Holy Land. Catholic Near East Director Msgr. Robert Stern said the 147,000 Christians in Israel and the 30,000-40,000 who live in the occupied territories face a “very serious” and “tenuous” situation.

The meetings’ participants also spoke of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the Roman synagogue, saying it is a hopeful sign that past advances will continue to strengthen the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism.

NCS President and co-chair Rabbi Alvin Berkhun praised his Catholic counterpart, Cardinal William Keeler, who at the fall meeting served his last session as co-chair and USCCB Moderator for Jewish Affairs. Several other rabbis and Jewish leaders joined Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory in praise for the cardinal’s work.

Cardinal Keeler’s role in the dialogue will be filled by Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan.

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