The time was l960. Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac, a renowned historian, sat side by side, talked for hours and changed the world. Their wide-ranging conversation resulted in a revolutionary course for religious ecumenicalism.
Pope John XXIII was making major changes in the Catholic Church. Their meeting had a direct impact on the second Vatican Council and its pronouncements in l963. Of great significance was the lifting of the false charge of “deicide” —responsibility for the murder of Jesus — that had plagued generations of Jews throughout world for almost 2000 years.
What led up to their dramatic meeting of mind and spirit?
As Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII grew up on a peasant farm in northern Italy, where he walked miles barefoot to the nearest school and decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest. Showing exceptional ability, he won scholarships and attained his goal when in l904 he was ordained as a priest at age 23. From the beginning of his career, Roncalli was given important work in the church. After he served on the battlefield of World War I, he traveled throughout Europe for the church as a diplomat during the l920’s. He became well-known as a man who could build human bonds and trust. He rose to be an archbishop, then a cardinal. On October 28, 1958 —on the eleventh ballot— Angelo Roncalli was elected to succeed Pope Pius XII. He chose the name John.
Jules Isaac was raised as the son of an officer in the French army. He pursued a career in the academic world and became a professor of history and a widely respected scholar. For the first sixty years of his life, he said he never personally experienced anti-Semitism. “I was a Jew. I did not boast about it and I did not hide it; it was a fact.” World War II and the Nazi occupation of Europe changed his life and his work forever. He was stunned by the silence and apathy of most of the Christian world to the rounding up and destruction of millions of European Jews. In l942, he published his first writing on the wrenching subject of the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.
In l943, Gestapo agents arrested his wife while Isaac was away from home. His daughter, son, son-in-law and several other family members were arrested in Nazi occupied Vichy, France. Only his son later escaped. All the others were killed in the concentration camps. His wife, who had worked closely with her husband, was able to smuggle out a note him before her death. She wrote “Save yourself for your work. The world is waiting for it.” Isaac fled the Nazis, hiding many times in the homes of priests and ministers, and continued his work as a “sacred mission”. In l947, his 600 page manuscript, Jesus et Israel, was published. Through scholarly analysis and comparison of the Gospels with many Catholic and Protestant commentaries, he showed how the influential commentaries had given a distorted and slanted picture of Jesus and the Jewish people.
While Isaac continued his writing and meeting with ecumenical groups of Christian clergy in the l940’s and l950’s, John XXIII was beginning to make changes in the Catholic liturgy. In l958, he eliminated the crucial word perfidis, (Latin for “treacherous” or “faithless”) from the prayer for the Jews. In l959, he cut out two other prejudicial sentences against the Jews from significant prayers. He had been elected Pope as a compromise between conservatives and those who wanted to modernize the church. He turned out to be very much a man of action and change.
Finally, Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac met face to face without others present. They sat on a bench overlooking the sea and talked for hours. Isaac was 83; Pope John was 79. Isaac made a fervent presentation, based on his decades of research, that there was an urgent need for the head of the church to condemn forever “the teaching of contempt” against the Jews. He suggested creation of a separate sub commission in the Vatican II Council to study the project. At that point, the Pope, who had been listening with great concentration, declared, “ I have been thinking about that ever since you began to speak.”
Jules Isaac did not live to see the results of the Vatican II Council. But his life’s work had led to the momentous meeting with John XXIII. And to dramatic ecumenical changes in Christian theology and practice. At a Sorbonne lecture in l959, Isaac had said, “The teaching of contempt has been with us long enough. It has wrought enough evil in the world. It no longer had the right to exist.” Pope John XXIII, with his profound wisdom and great heart, agreed with him. He made the changes in the Catholic liturgy, lifting the false charge of ‘deicide’ from the Jewish people.
In the daily chant of Catholics in different languages around the globe, the question “Who killed Christ?” and the answer, “The Jews killed Christ” was no longer to be repeated. However, making that happen would take years to become real in the minds of Catholic men, women and children who had said it and believed it all their lives.
“The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism” by Jules Isaac, 154 pages is available on Amazon.com.