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Seton Hall’s role in an interfaith ‘sea change’
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Seton Hall’s role in an interfaith ‘sea change’

Jews and Catholics celebrate local roots of a historic document

Fr. John Oesterreicher, shown at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, contributed the chapter on Catholicism's bond to the Jewish people in the declaration "Nostra Aetate."
Fr. John Oesterreicher, shown at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, contributed the chapter on Catholicism's bond to the Jewish people in the declaration "Nostra Aetate."

As the Christian and Jewish worlds prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of a papal proclamation that revolutionized relations between Catholics and Jews, scholars in both communities are recalling Seton Hall University’s pivotal backstage role in bringing it about.

Two people closely associated with the Catholic university in South Orange, Sister Rose Thering and Monsignor John Maria Oesterreicher, laid much of the groundwork for “Nostra Aetate” (Latin for “In Our Time”), which rejected the charge of collective Jewish responsibility for killing Jesus.

Begun under the reign of Pope John Paul II and issued by Pope John XXIII on Oct. 28, 1965, the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions inaugurated a half-century of dialogue between the two faiths.

“The spirit of Nostra Aetate was so successful in the American ethos that young Jews generally have not suffered the religiously motivated anti-Semitism that was a regular part of their grandparents’ lives,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.

That success is owed in no small part to a 1959 doctoral dissertation that Thering, a nun of the Dominican Order, wrote at St. Louis University. It analyzed the anti-Semitic content of textbooks used prominently in American Catholic schools. 

“Part of the papal proclamation had indirect roots in Sister Rose’s dissertation concerning images of Judaism and Jewish people,” said Father Lawrence Frizzell, director of Seton Hall’s Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies

“Unfortunately they were at times negative, so she catalogued them and sent them to the Foundation for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican. The thought has been that Sister Rose’s thesis influenced Augustin Cardinal Bea, the man designated by Pope John XXIII to produce documents that would be presented on the council floor for the bishops to debate and vote on,” said Frizzell. “The bishops had to be convinced to vote for Nostra Aetate in order for it to pass, so it was a help to have the documentation that she provided.”

According to Marans, Thering’s thesis “revealed the depth of the problem and was an example for how individual people within the Catholic Church, together with Jewish leaders, were able to build a foundation for the sea change we call Nostra Aetate.”

Oesterreicher, who was born to a Jewish family in Austria, converted to Catholicism and became a priest in 1927. He was an anti-Nazi activist in the 1930s and retained that commitment after moving to the United States and establishing the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall. After becoming a monsignor in 1961, he was one of 15 priests who petitioned the Vatican to take up the issue of anti-Semitism.

“Sister Rose and Monsignor Oesterreicher, AJC, Seton Hall, and others were laboring in this vineyard long before Nostra Aetate, and in some cases before the Shoa,” said Marans. 

Before she retired after nearly 20 years as executive director of AJC’s New Jersey Region, Allyson Gall, born a Catholic, was greatly involved in interfaith relations, much of it with Catholic leaders.

“We always were partners in the efforts of Seton Hall and we would let our people know about their programs,” Gall told NJJN in an Oct. 14 phone interview. “Seton Hall, because it put together the institute, trained a lot of teachers who would not have had such training at all. Sister Rose’s presence and Oesterreicher’s and Frizzell’s within the institute showed it really had an understanding of Jews.”

Standing by a library cart filled with cases of documents on Nostra Aetate, Seton Hall archivist Alan Delozier told NJJN the files “represent a vital link between the Catholic heritage of our university and the importance of Judaism and its service to the community. The ties of Jewish-Christian relations that Seton Hall established with the institute in 1953 have gone on, and our collection here reflects that. You really get a sense of what Msgr. Oesterreicher and Sister Rose were trying to do to promote this important initiative.”

As an undergraduate at Seton Hall, Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest — a department of the Jewish Federation of GMW NJ — took courses on the Shoa from Frizzell and was influenced by Oesterreicher to continue her graduate studies on the Holocaust. 

“Seton Hall gave me academic grounding,” she said. Prior to that, Wind, a child of Holocaust survivors, gained strong anecdotal knowledge of the Shoa through her parents and their friends.

Wind received a scholarship from the Sister Rose Thering Endowment, which raises funds to enable writers and teachers to study the Holocaust at the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies.

As a graduate student, Wind developed a close friendship with Thering that began in the late 1990s and lasted until the nun’s death in 2006.

Wind said that Thering told her that Nostra Aetate “almost didn’t get passed, but there were enough liberal-minded bishops who said, ‘We have to change this.’ It propelled Rose into fame in this very small circle of theologians and interfaith organizations. But if she were a man, who knows what impact that study would have had?”

Oesterreicher, who died in 1993, also helped remove Catholic teachings targeting the Jews for conversion. “The man who had been the most determined Catholic missionary to the Jews helped the church break with the idea that Jews must become Christians in order to be saved,” according to John Connelly, a historian of the church. 

In celebration of the 50th anniversary, John Borelli, special assistant for Interreligious Initiatives for the president of Georgetown University, will present “The Complicated Journey of Nostra Aetate: The Declaration of the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions” at Seton Hall on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 1.

“Although there will always be those who utilize the ambiguity of New Testament passages to lay the blame collectively on the Jewish people, this teaching has become forbidden within the Catholic Church,” said Marans, as he considered the 50-year-old document’s legacy. 

“Every major Protestant denomination has gone through a similar process, but the gold standard remains Nostra Aetate,” he said, “not because it solved every issue but because it led to a structure that would enable the relationship to flourish and expand the learning between Catholics and Jews over decades.”

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