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Cardinal Keeler's legacy includes strengthening Catholic-Jewish bonds

27 Mar 2017 – By Eugene J. Fisher

Cardinal William H. Keeler was moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for much of the period (1977-2007) that I was the staff person for Catholic-Jewish relations for the USCCB.

We worked closely together during those years. Our work was at once theological and communal, since we were dealing with re-establishing after a nearly 2,000-year hiatus an open, trusting relationship between the “People of God, the Jews, and the People of God, the Church,” to use the wording of the Scriptures and of the Second Vatican Council.

The key document that guided us, as we began, was the short, revolutionary declaration of Vatican II, “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time,” which I humorously translated as Jews might understand it, as “It’s About Time!”).

Cardinal Keeler had been a “peritus,” or expert, at Vatican II so understood the significance of each phrase of the conciliar texts, and how they related to and reinforced each other.

Cardinal Keeler’s theological understanding was profound, and I was able aid him in understanding the Jewish community, since I had a doctorate in Hebrew studies from the Institute of Hebrew Studies of New York University. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, which served him well in dialogue with Jews and others. We were friends as well as colleagues. He baptized my daughter, Sarah, and she came to love him, calling him at one point, “Rabbi Keeler,” eliciting a hearty laugh.

Cardinal Keeler fostered dialogues between Catholics and Jews internationally and nationally, on the diocesan level and between local parishes and synagogues. To accomplish this we needed to bring together the major secular and religious Jewish organizations in a way that they could, together, represent the whole of American Jewry. The Jewish religious groups (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist) came together to form the National Council of Synagogues, while the Jewish communal groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith joined in as equal partners.

Our first meetings were held annually at the University of Notre Dame, but evolved after a few years into two meetings a year, one in Washington or Baltimore and one in New York.

The meetings had a focus, with papers given on a particular topic, usually regarding social and charitable traditions, as there is much in common given our shared Scriptures. This social focus also reassured Jews that our meetings would not be used to attempt to convert Jews. Cardinal Keeler was very sensitive to this, since he was an historian and understood the lingering effects that centuries of Christian attempts to convert Jews, all too often by force, have on the Jewish memory to this day.

Often the meetings provided a place where Jews could raise concerns that they had with a variety of issues, some of which were quite controversial.

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