Nostra Aetate at the Cathedral of Old San Juan


At the invitation of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Puerto Rico, Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, leaders of the Puerto Rican Jewish community lit Hanukkah candles in the Cathedral of Old San Juan last Sunday, December 13th! This historic event took place on the last night of Hanukkah, when all eight candles are lit.

The cathedral, formally named after San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), the patron saint of Puerto Rico, was built in 1540; it is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas. The “founder” of Spanish Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon, is buried there.

Because that Sunday was the Opening Celebration of the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, the cathedral was filled with over a thousand worshipers, with the archbishop in his purple robes, a great many priests in full vestments, nuns in habits, Knights of Columbus in dress regalia (complete with swords and black velvet hats topped with fluffy white ostrich plumes), all supplemented by tourists, attracted by the enormous turnout, who crowded the aisles.

The Jubilee year ceremony coincided with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the Roman Catholic Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, under the guidance of Pope John Paul XXIII, and in the immediate aftermath of a new papal statement entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the latest in a series of church documents implementing the teachings of Nostra Aetate regarding Jews and Judaism.

After the conclusion of the mass, the Archbishop invited to the cathedral’s “bimah” Rabbi Norman Patz, visiting rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico; Naomi Patz; Diego Mendelbaum, the Community Director of Congregation Shaare Zedeck, and the members of the two congregations who had accompanied them to the ceremony.

Rabbi Patz, whose remarks were delivered in English with key sections also in Spanish, and Diego Mendelbaum, who spoke in Spanish, both talked about the significance and impact of Nostra Aetate. When Rabbi Patz offered the sentence from the prophet Malachi, “Have we not all one Father…,” the assembled congregation burst into loud, spontaneous applause that echoed in the huge sanctuary.

Archbishop Gonzalez Nieves and Rabbi Patz read Psalm 67, line by line, alternately, in Spanish and Hebrew, and Rabbi Patz led whoever knew the melody and words in singing the two Hanukkah candle blessings as the candles were lit by Diego Mendelbaum. What a sight! The small hanukkiah, bright with nine candles – pinpoints of light centered before the altar of the cathedral, itself blazing with enormous lit tapers and chandeliers – was a powerful symbol of this emotional, historic moment.

After the conclusion of the ceremony, hundreds of people came forward to hug and kiss the Jewish participants, to say shalom (or paz), in a few cases to proudly tell us that they knew some Hebrew or had traveled to Israel, or had participated in the church production of Fiddler on the Roof, and to photograph – or be photographed with – the hanukkiah in the cathedral. It was truly extraordinary.

Here is the text of Rabbi Patz’s remarks:

We gather to mark – and, indeed, celebrate – the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a milestone in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and its relationship to other faith communities. We honor the declaration as a success story and as an example of religious vitality, worthy of admiration and emulation.

Nos reunimos para recordar – y, de hecho, celebrar – el quincuagésimo aniversario de Nostra Aetate, hito en la historia de la Iglesia Católica Romana y su relación con otras comunidades de fe. Honramos la declaración como una logro importante y como un ejemplo de la vitalidad religiosa, digno de admiración y emulación.

This great accomplishment was not easy to achieve because religions aim to speak and teach eternal truths, truths that come from long ago, truths that reach out to God and teach us our place and duties in life, truths that seem unchangeable.

Yet at the same time, religious institutions that wish to remain relevant must find the best way to help the faithful understand the ancient truths in ways that make sense in contemporary society. When societies change, whether owing to progress or to upheaval, religious teachings need to be reframed, refined, even redirected. Neither church nor synagogue nor mosque can afford to be prisoners of the past, rendered unable to face the present, let alone the future.

Fifty years ago, the Roman Catholic Church, beginning under the inspired leadership of Pope John XXIII and continuing under Pope Paul VI, undertook a process of self-examination to address modernity’s blessings – democracy and individual rights, for example – and modernity’s curses – World War II and the Holocaust, in particular. The resulting document, Nostra Aetate, with its rejection of the charge of deicide leveled against Jews by so many centuries of Church teachings, and its recognition of the continuing validity of the Covenant at Sinai, began a process of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, whom Pope John Paul II described as “beloved older brothers.”

With the passage of 50 years, much has been achieved despite the resistance that always accompanies major reorientation. Yet much still needs to be done.

To this end, on this 50th anniversary, Pope Francis has reinforced the aims of Nostra Aetate. This week he issued a declaration entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable.” In it, the Holy Father stressed that because Christianity is rooted in Judaism, Catholics need both to dialogue with Jews and also combat what the Pope called “racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism.” “These,” he said, “have certainly not been eradicated and reemerge in different ways in various contexts.”

As brothers and sisters in faith, we face fanatical forces seeking to destroy us all. Their aim is the opposite of ours, of the reconciliation we celebrate today in this ceremony.

And I ask – as all of us, people of good faith, must ask – as the Prophet Malachi asked so many centuries ago (2:10): “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” No tenemos todos un mismo padre? No nos ha criado un mismo dios?

As he challenged his contemporaries, so must we challenge ourselves and our contemporaries: “Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?”

Por qué menospreciaremos cada uno a su hermano, quebrantando el pacto de nuestros padres?

Tonight we reach the climax of the Jewish festival of lights: Hanukkah, the first fight in history for religious freedom. Twenty one hundred years ago the victorious Maccabees cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the worship of the Eternal God. In this spirit, we dedicate ourselves anew to the goals of Nostra Aetate, and we pray:

“May the favor of the Eternal our God be upon us; let this work of our hands prosper.

O prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

Esta noche llegamos al día final de la fiesta judía de las luces: Jánuca, la primera pelea en la historia por la libertad religiosa. Hace dos mil cien años, los victoriosos Macabeos limpiaron el templo en Jerusalén y lo dedicaron de nuevo a la adoración del Dios Eterno. En este espíritu, nos dedicamos de nuevo a los objetivos de Nostra Aetate, y rogamos:

Que descienda hasta nosotros
la bondad del Eterno, nuestro Dios;
que haga prosperar la obra de nuestras manos.
(Salmo 90:17)