GOD'S 'LOVING WILL' SPURS CHURCH'S 'JEWISH CONNECTION'

by James C. O'Neill, Our Sunday Visitor, July 10, 1983

Catholic-Jewish relations are dramatically better today than ever before, but "inertia of mind and heart as well as a lack of courage" still dims the vision of many Catholics of God's will for the two great religions.

This is the opinion of a man who ought to know. Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher has spent almost 50 years of his life championing an increase of knowledge and respect between Christians and Jews.

Much of what the Austrian-born priest has fought for has been validated by the Second Vatican Council. In 1963 the Vatican Council officially repudiated biased and offensive notions about the Jews, including the belief they were rejected or accursed by God, thanks in great part to Msgr. Oesterreicher.

To this day he continues to be a strong champion of the Jews and the state of Israel whenever he thinks prejudice is at work. Even as he enters his 80s, the white-haired, retired University of Seton Hall professor can get hot under his clerical collar when Jewish and Catholic relations are threatened.

The 1983 audience of PLO leader Yasir Arafat with Pope John Paul II is a case in point. "If the pope had asked me, I would have begged him not to do it. But I can't deny the pope, or anyone else, the right to do what he thinks right for the peace of the world," he said.

"The pope didn't receive Arafat to strengthen international terrorism. He received him, I am sure, for no other reason than he thought it would help the peace of this world."

Deeply sensitive to the pain and outrage the audience caused among the Jews, the monsignor nevertheless was riled at the accusations of some influential rabbis who claimed the papal audience revived anti-Semitism in Europe.

Msgr. Oesterreicher called the rabbis' charges "totally irresponsible." He said they were hurled against the pope as "part of an orgy of recrimination, of a free-for-all of accusations and counter-accusations."

Warming to his subject, he also took on Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin for accusing the Catholic Church of remaining silent during the massacre of Jews during World War II. "Quite the opposite was true. The Church was the major voice to speak out, but it was not heard," he declared.

Citing the speeches and actions of bishops in Belgium, England, Holland, Italy and France, Msgr. Oesterreicher said the voice of the Church was not remembered in those painful times of Nazi domination. He speaks his mind openly whenever he thinks truth is endangered. Though he did not favour Israel's invasion of Lebanon "because it meant only trouble," he refuses to call it an "aggressive war" on Israel's part.

"Jews," he explains, "are a fierce and passionate people. Like the Irish, who often relive the violence and suppression of the English in Ireland, the Jews see in terrorist attacks reminders of the holocaust and they act decisively.

He sympathizes with Israel's fear of having a PLO state as a next-door neighbour on the West Bank, but he thinks the establishment there of new Jewish settlements is a political and demographic mistake.

"The PLO demands the destruction of Israel and I understand Israel's refusal to sit down with them. But if, by some chance, Israel were permitted to swallow up the whole Left Bank, in no time at all the Jewish state would cease to exist because more Arab children are being born than Jewish children."

Msgr. Oesterreicher is also critical of those who censure Israel for permitting Lebanese Phalangists to massacre Palestinian Arabs in the Shabra and Sentilla camps last February (1982). Israel has publicly assumed "indirect responsibility" for the massacres, he says, asking who no one seems to blame the Christian Phalangists, who were directly responsible for the indiscriminate slaughter?

"More than 100,000 Lebanese of all factions have been killed in Lebanon over the years," he says. "But no one is blaming the Arabs. Arafat, too, ignores the guilt of Arabs, particularly that of his own PLO. In murdering Christians," PLO members "laid the groundwork for cutting down Palestinian Arabs..."

Msgr. Oesterreicher knows that these views are not well received among many Catholics and other Christians who are concerned with the Arabs, and particularly the Christian Arabs in the Middle East. But he asks why it always seems to be the Jews and Israel who are singled out for blame.

"Nobody says anything against the Egyptian authorities for oppressing the Coptic Christians. No one protested vehemently against the forced closing of St. Joseph's College years ago in Iraq, nor against the laws in Jordan prior to 1967 which prohibited Christians from acquiring new property. If Israel did any of these things, everyone would cry bloody murder, from the authorities in Rome to Catholics all over the world... This is prejudice."

During his long career, Msgr. Oesterreicher has been vilified by many. The Nazis in Austria and Germany denounced him in the '30s and '40s as a communist agent and as a pawn of international Jewry. Jews also have not always understood him. Some considered him as a sort of Catholic Trojan horse, a priest seemingly friendly to the Jews but secretly out to make converts of them. "I have been called an enemy of the Jewish people," he recalls with a touch of sadness.

He still enjoys the irony of the fact that he became involved with the plight of the Jews in Austria - and later with the status of the Jewish people in relation to the Church - because of Nazi anti-Semitism. "It was Adolph Hitler who made me do it," he says. "I preached a sermon in 1931, pleading with opposing sides to avoid civil war.

"Hitler came to power in Germany the next year. Many people, especially Jews, came to me full of anguish and panic. I tried to comfort them but it was so little. I thought there should be more I could do. That's how it all started. My work was a kind of response to Hitler and what he stood for."

His immediate response was to found a group to challenge abuse and oppression of the Jews by Nazis. In the group's publication The Fulfillment, he began writing. "I analyzed the Nuremberg laws (which severely limited the freedom of the Jews in Germany) and showed that from a Christian point of view they violated the civil rights and also the Church teaching on marriage and other human rights."

When the Nazis came to power in Austria in 1938, he left for France. There he went on the radio every Sunday to preach against Nazi tyranny. When the Germans occupied Paris, he was an exile again, finally settling in the United States.

In the U.S. he continued preaching and teaching, and his interest in the theological relations between Christians and Jews grew. In 1953 he was given an opportunity to found the Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall. It was the first Catholic academic institution of its kind to be devoted to developing greater mutual understanding and respect of the two faiths.

With the calling of the Second Vatican Council, Msgr. Oesterreicher and a number of Church leaders and scholars saw an opportunity sent by God to try to right some of the wrongs done to Jews over the centuries.

"Whatever I achieved at the Second Vatican Council," he said, "I did not accomplish single-handedly. I was a member of a team." Nevertheless, it was the body of his writings in The Bridge, the institute's scholarly publication, and in many international journals, and his persistent lobbying of bishops at Vatican Council II, which was to be of great influence in the final document on the Jews.

Looking back on the Vatican Council's adoption of the statement, he says: "... in the rediscovery of Judaism, that is, of its own independent worth and its significance for the Church, in the reordering of the relationship of Christians and Jews, and in their new encounter, God's spirit triumphs."

Recent popes have also contributed much to the development of dialogue and respect among Catholics and Jews, he says. he gives high marks to Pope John XXIII, who ordered that the Good Friday liturgy be purged of the term "perfidious Jews." He also gives high marks to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the council and met with leaders of Jewish communities where he traveled, and Pope John Paul II. The present pope, he said, has shown special affection for the Jews whenever he has a chance to meet and talk with them.

Even so, Msgr. Oesterreicher acknowledges that all the changes of the past 20 years have not eradicated prejudice among Catholics in Europe and the U.S.

"The council speaks with regard to the Jews, and by now everyone should know what has been said and should have undergone a change of heart," he said. "But misunderstandings, interpretations and clichés still exist. I think it is due to ignorance, inertia and a lack of courage."

Pointing out that people do not change easily, Msgr. Oesterreicher said anti-Semitism lingers on and that it needs to be combatted by education.

To root out prejudice requires an effort on the part of Catholics and Jews alike, he says. "The fact that I foresee the possibility of deepening, fruitful relations but still have no certainty that this indeed will happen, keeps me on my toes.

"I don't know what will happen. But I will do everything in every hour of my life to see that these relations become what they ought to be, according to the loving will of God."


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