Pope's prayer for Jews' conversion stirs controversy
The action threatens to derail decades of dialogue between the Vatican and Jews.
Rome -- An apparent attempt by Pope Benedict XVI to appease a tiny traditionalist Roman Catholic minority has ended up offending members of the Jewish faith.
"A defeat for dialogue, which imposes a pause for reflection," said Italy's Assembly of Rabbis, which groups together the country's Jewish clerics.
They were referring to a prayer penned by the German-born pontiff for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, which threatens to derail decades of dialogue between the Vatican and members of the Jewish faith.
The controversy boiled over this week when the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published a copy of the revisions made by Benedict to a prayer for the conversion of Jews in the traditional Latin form of the Good Friday liturgy.
But it all began in July 2007 when the German-born pontiff issued a decree easing the use of the old-style Latin Mass and a missal prayer book phased out in the wake of reforms ushered in by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Widely interpreted as a move to woo back into the fold the so-called Tridentine traditionalists who split with Rome over what they said was Vatican II's surrender to "modernity", Benedict's decree also alarmed some progressives within the church.
Most of the criticism however, came from Jewish groups who objected to what they regarded as offensive terms used in the old liturgy including a reference to Jewish "blindness" over Christ and a phrase asking God to "remove the veil from their hearts."
With Good Friday - when Christians commemorate Christ's crucifixion - approaching on March 21, reports that Benedict would soften or even cancel all reference to Jews in the text surfaced in the Italian media.
Then this week L'Osservatore Romano published the revised version of the Oremus et pro Iudaeis, or in English: Let us also pray for the Jews.
The Vatican's Secretariat of State said Benedict had ordered the revisions to the text contained in the original 1962 Roman Missal.
Gone was reference to Jews' "blindness" and "veiled hearts", but if the Holy See was hoping in a grateful response from Jewish groups, it was to be disappointed.
"In previous months we had raised all our perplexities and they (the Vatican) had given us their ample assurances, but now we are faced with the worst," Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, was quoted as saying by Italy's most respected newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"It (the revised prayer) still suggests that (the Vatican's) 'dialogue' with the Jews is in fact aimed at one specific goal, their conversion, something which for us is unacceptable," the Assembly of Rabbis said in their response.
Criticism has also came from further abroad.
"While we appreciate that the text avoids any derogatory language toward Jews, it's regretful that the prayer explicitly calls for Jews to accept Christianity," Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
The Vatican has moved to quell the controversy with its top official in charge of relations with Jews denying that the new prayer for their conversion was offensive.
But in an interview with Corriere della Sera published Thursday Cardinal Walter Kasper also suggested the Vatican resented Catholics being told how they should pray.
"I must say that I don't understand why Jews cannot accept that we can make use of our freedom to formulate our prayers," Kasper, told Corriere della Sera.
"We think that reasonably this prayer cannot be an obstacle to dialogue because it reflects the faith of the Church and, furthermore, Jews have prayers in their liturgical texts that we Catholics don't like," Kasper said.
In a separate interview with Vatican Radio, Kasper said through the prayer Benedict "wanted to say 'yes, Jesus Christ is the saviour of all men, including the Jews'".
"But this does not we are on a mission (to covert Jews). We are giving witness to our faith," Kasper said.
Still, for Benedict XVI who ignited controversy with Muslims when a speech he made in September 2006 was interpreted as equating Islam with violence, the issue has the makings of another diplomatic debacle.
Last month when Benedict cancelled a visit to Rome's main university La Sapienza following threats by students and staff to disrupt it, Di Segni said the pontiff was welcome to visit Rome's main synagogue instead.
Now relations appeared to have soured considerably.
"The question seems always to be the same: What are the Jews doing on this earth? If this is the prerequisite for dialogue, its intolerable," Di Segni said.
DPA with Expatica