Catholic bishops in Britain call for end to prayer about conversion of Jews

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Ammar Awad)An Israeli soldier touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. A group of Catholic bishops in Britain is now calling for the Catholic Church to alter its prayers for the Jews. The group says praying for them to accept Jesus as their Savior is an impediment to good relations between the two religions.

LONDON (Christian Examiner) – Seeking better relationships with Jews in Britain, a group of Catholic bishops from England and Wales is proposing a revision to the prayer Catholics say for the Jews on Good Friday.

According to the Catholic Herald, the current prayer, revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, asks for God to "illuminate" the hearts of Jews "that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men."

That prayer, in and of itself, was regarded by many Catholics as an improvement over the older prayer which asked God to alleviate the spiritual "blindness" of the Jewish people and pull them from their "immersion in darkness."

Catholic leaders in Britain, however, want to move away from Benedict's prayer that references Jesus Christ as Savior and the older prayer in favor the "Novus Ordo" or "New Order" version adopted after the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul VI (who also absolved the Jews of guilt for killing Jesus). That prayer makes no reference to Jesus Christ as the Jewish messiah or the need for the Jews to seek salvation in Him. It also presumably represents the covenant of Sinai as still being in effect, though some scholars have disagreed with that interpretation. 

The Novus Ordo prayer reads:

"Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption."

Israel prays for the Gentiles. So the other monotheistic religions, including the Catholic Church, have the right to do the same thing, and no one should feel offended. Any other attitude toward the Gentiles would block them from encountering the one God revealed to Israel in the Torah
- Rabbi Jacob Neusner

Why the desire to revert to the New Order prayer? According to Archbishop Kevin McDonald, the prayer enacted by Pope Benedict, as well as the older prayer, both "upset the Jewish community."

"The 1970 prayer which is now used throughout the Church is basically a prayer that the Jewish people would continue to grow in the love of God's name and in faithfulness of his Covenant, a Covenant which – as St. John Paul II made clear in 1980 – has not been revoked. By contrast the prayer produced in 2008 for use in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy reverted to being a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity," McDonald said.

According to the Jerusalem Post, several Jewish leaders welcomed the request for a change in the prayer.

Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the newspaper that Jews welcomed the move because it embodied "the spirit of friendship and respect envisioned by that powerful statement."

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis also applauded the call for change.

"This motion is a testament to the warm and ever improving relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities here in the UK. I have discussed this matter with Cardinal Vincent Nichols during my recent conversations with him and I know how personally supportive he is of this change. In the current climate of religiously motivated extremism and violence, this message of brotherhood and tolerance is enormously valuable," he said.

Another Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, said by the paper to be an "expert in Christian theology," said the call for changing the prayer was "a huge step forward in the ever-maturing relations between our two faiths."

Rabbi David Rosen, who serves as the International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, also said changing the prayer would be a sign that the Catholic Church recognizes the "integrity of Jewish faith and identity."

When Benedict XVI changed the prayer to the "extraordinary version" in 2008, calling for the Jews to recognize Jesus Christ as the Savior of all men, Rabbi Jacob Neusner defended the prayer along with Roman Catholic Bishop Gianfranco Ravasi.

Neusner is the author of more than a dozen books of Judaism and early Christianity.

"Israel prays for the Gentiles," Neusner said in 2008. "So the other monotheistic religions, including the Catholic Church, have the right to do the same thing, and no one should feel offended. Any other attitude toward the Gentiles would block them from encountering the one God revealed to Israel in the Torah."

"The Catholic prayer manifests the same altruistic spirit that characterizes the faith of Judaism. The kingdom of God opens its gates to all of humanity: when they pray and ask for the swift coming of the kingdom of God, the Israelites express the same degree of freedom of spirit that impregnates the papal text of the prayer for the Jews to be recited on Good Friday."

Joseph Shaw, president of the Latin Mass Society, also said the 2008 prayer shouldn't be opposed because, like the prayer it replaced, it reflects the "theology and imagery of 2 Corinthians 3:13-16."

That passage reads:

"We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away."

In 2008, the pastor of America's largest church, Joel Osteen, was at the center of a similar debate when he told TV host Larry King about whether Jews and Muslims had to believe in Christ in order to gain entrance to heaven: "I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. I don't know."