The Great Shame

In the past few weeks, I have returned to something I haven't done since my time with the Dominicans--I have been praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the official daily prayer of the Church.  It is not a massive commitment of time--15 minutes in the morning and 15 or less in the evening--and it has done a nice job of providing a regular practice of marking the day.  It also gives an opportunity to follow along with the Calendar of the Saints.  I have, however, added a little twist by following the Franciscan calendar, which includes some of the less well known saints who were Franciscans.  Since I have been drawn of late to St. Francis, I figured it would be a good way to engage in the Franciscan tradition.

A couple of weeks back (October 23) was the feast of St. John of Capistrano.  Here in America, to the extent he is known at all, he is known for a town in Southern California and the swallows that return to that town every year.  I would imagine that there are few people that know anything about this guy or why he is relevant.  I certainly did not.

John of Capistrano lived in southern Italy, and started out his life as a politician and lawyer.  At the age of 26, he was appointed the governor of Perugia, and was promptly thrown in jail by a rival faction.  While in jail, he had a religious experience and decided to take up religious life.  He was part of a group of Franciscans who were part of a key reform movement known as the "Observants," along with St. Bernadine of Siena and St. James of the Marches.  They were known for being effective preachers and above reproach in their personal behavior.

They were also vicious anti-Semites. 
St. John of Capistrano was known as "the Scourge of the Jews."  He suggested rounding up all the Jews in the Papal States, putting them on a boat, and shipping them somewhere else--anywhere else.  At John's direction, many towns in southern Germany expelled all of their Jewish residents.  Some towns burned Jews at the stake.

It is very hard to read this kind of stuff, and very hard for me to take seriously the idea that a person like this can be considered a "saint."  But. there is something good that comes from being confronted with people like this in the Calendar of the Saints--it forces you to confront the anti-Semitic history of Christianity.  John of Capistrano is not unique, and he is not an outlier--what he is saying represented mainstream Catholic thought for the vast majority of the Church's history.  No one should forget that.

The last 50 years in the Catholic Church could be described as an extended argument over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council.  The documents are not models of clarity, and (probably on purpose) are open to varying interpretations.  But one document is entirely clear; that document is entitled Nostra Aetate, and its four key sentences are as follows:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. 
Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

This is absolutely inconsistent with the preaching and teaching of the vast majority of the two thousand years that preceded it.  Not surprisingly, those who reject the Second Vatican Council as heretical point to these four sentences as proof of its heresy.  Equally unsurprisingly, those same folks will often publish long screeds on how everything bad that is happening is a result of a "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy."  It's not surprising, because they have plenty of role models from the past to crib their talking points from.

Nostra Aetate doesn't make what John of Capistrano did and said retroactively OK.  It certainly does not.  All we can do as people of today is make sure that we never allow this kind of thinking to remain within the Church.  Pope Francis has said that you cannot be Christian and be anti-Semitic--Benedict and especially John Paul II said similar things.  But we need to be reminded of it.  We need people like John of Capistrano to remind us of our shame.

We should also use it, as a Church, as a reminder of the limits of our security.  Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit protects the Church, but the example of its history with the Jews shows the limits of that protection.  The Church is capable of being wrong, horribly wrong, tragically wrong.  We all have an obligation to be vigilant against similar tragedies in the future.


Fr. Justin said…
Dealing with Anti-Semitism (i.e., being honest about how Anti-Semitic many of our own greatest fathers have been) isn't easy for any of us. We Orthodox don't have a better track record than the Romans. (Can we say pogroms, anyone?) I recall a group of us asking the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas how he interpreted the passage in St. John Chrysostom that many (including Luther) felt endorsed Anti-Semitism. I'll never forget his startling reply: "I love St. John as a saint, but as one Orthodox bishop talking about another Orthodox bishop, sometimes what he says is just, well, plain anti-Semitic." Well, such honesty is a starting point, even if we can justify THEOLOGICALLY some of the stuff that takes us up to that point... There is no justifying where it has sometimes gone...

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