Reflections From the Rabbi
by Victor Donovan, C.P.
For years, Passionist Father Victor Donovan has been known as “The Rabbi” because of his long-time interest in Jewish-Catholic relations. As part of our ongoing effort to let Passionists and those affiliated with the Passionists explain the meaning of Passionist identity in contemporary society, the editors asked Fr. Victor to provide the genesis of this life-long interest. In turn, it allows all of us to pause and reflect on the recent murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, the quest of peace in the Middle East, and deployment of US military to Bosnia to bring about peace in order to rectify a situation that many have suggested parallels the Holocaust. Father Victor currently resides at Holy Family Monastery, West Hartford, CT.
Morgan P. Hanlon, C.P., Editor
So many of the brethren have asked to explain the reasons for my years of interest in the Jewish people that I have finally decided to trace out an answer for the sake of the record and for my own satisfaction.
Going back in memory to my early childhood, I discovered the first clue that opened the way to what followed. This was my pre-school friendship with a Jewish boy by the name of George Abrams, who chose me to be his buddy. We played together every day in my yard, while the older fellows were at school. I would say “every day” except Saturdays and special days throughout the year. At these times he would retreat into the privacy of his family. When asked to explain his absence, he would only answer: “It is our religion.” My mother taught me to respect him for this, which I did.
A psychoanalyst might say that this early friendship in the formative period of my life pre-determined my later identification with Jews and Jewish causes. For as the poet said: “Childhood shows the man: as morning shows the day.” (Milton: Paradise Regained.) Be that as it may, I knew my early experiences grew into a deeper understanding of my own Catholic religion which had its beginnings among the Jewish people.
George and I went our separate ways after graduating from high school. The country, at that time, was slowly recovering from the effects of World War I. One good feature of these post-War days was the fact that people had become more religious and conscious of God. This came about because they had to forego many worldly pleasures as well as undergoing the hardship of food shortages.
My favorite devotion during this time was making the daily way of the cross. The Fifth Station, which depicted Simon of Cyrene being forced into the story of Christ’s sufferings, must have made a lasting impression on my sub-conscious mind. I continued to reason that if an unwilling stranger could be called upon to serve our Lord, then why couldn’t the same opportunity be given to me? After all I was not as unwilling to serve God as was the Cyrenian!
I was also interested in reading the reports of the Passionist Missionaries in China as carried in The Sign magazine. Eventually I responded to our Lord’s invitation: “Come! follow me!” I became a Passionist novice after graduating from college in 1930.
The next six years were spent in the formation of the religious life according to the Rule of St. Paul of the Cross. These years coincided with the first years of President Roosevelt’s administration. It was a period of great social tension. The Democrats had launched their New Deal with the National Recovery Act. The radio airwaves were flooded with the strongest kind of political oratory.
The Church showed great interest and paid close attention to the President’s social programs. We were encouraged, as Passionist students, to keep ourselves informed of what was going on in Washington, DC. We read the Catholic periodicals such as America, Catholic World, and our own magazine, The Sign.
The “Catholic Hour” was our favorite program on the radio. However, the most popular one, far above all others, was Father Charles Coughlin’s broadcast from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Detroit, Michigan. The Radio Priest, as he was called, overstepped the bounds of fairness in his efforts to satisfy his followers by resorting to low forms of name calling. He referred to our President as “Rosenfeld,” lawyers became “shysters,” financiers became “Shylocks;” members of the international banking system were mentioned with names whose ethnic origins were obvious. Anti-Semitism became rampant. It even seeped into our Catholic Press by way of letters to the editor.
These weekly attacks on the Jewish people, coming from a Catholic priest, sickened me! I thought to myself, “If my friend George Abrams is listening to these broadcasts, what distorted notions does he have of my being a priest?” It was a traumatic experience from which I prayed that I would never recover. I feel now that my prayers were answered. Not only have I not recovered, but I have further promised myself that I will always try to replace hate with love as my answer to anti-Semitism.
The second experience to contribute the most causing me to favor the Jews took place in the holy city of Rome. I had been sent there as a priest to continue my studies in theology and scripture. I arrived there at a time when the people were still buzzing over the visit that Adolf Hitler had held with their Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. To say the least they were confused.
Rome was at a loss what to think. On the one hand they saw their leader linked in an embrace with the German Fuhrer; yet they knew that their Holy Father, Pope Pius XI had, in his 1937 encyclical, condemned the Nazis in “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Anxiety.). In fact he had referred to Hitler as a “mad prophet of repulsive arrogance,” and had absented himself from the Vatican until every swastika had been removed from the city. Pope Pius XI called it the “twisted cross” set up to replace the cross of Christ.
I ran into a more serious problem at the university which I attended. There were seminary students in attendance from all over the world. The news of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews became the subject of frequent disputes. On this particular occasion in the heat of an argument, a German shouted out: “I don’t care what you think! The Fuhrer’s Mein Kampf is my bible!” Here was a theologian, only a few months from being a priest, placing the word of a murderer on par with the Word of God! I could hardly believe my ears. It was as though I had been hit with a truck! The words of our Lord came to me: “If they do these things in the green wood, what is to happen in the dry.”
The world was soon to see what was to happen in the dry. Hitler’s war machine swept across Europe like a roaring forest fire, bringing death to millions of innocent people. One third of the world’s Jewish population was wiped out. Their only guilt was to have been born “Children of Abraham” – “Our Father in faith.”
The war brought an end to my studies in Rome. Along with thousands of others, I headed for home in America. It was on an overcrowded S.S. Washington that I came into direct contact with Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany for the first time. These people saw the burning of their synagogues with the police standing by. Their homes had either been fire bombed or confiscated. Their places of business smeared with the swastika.
I listened to their stories with the idea of sharing them with my folks back home. Much to my surprise when I tried to tell them to my friends, I was told that I had been brainwashed by Jewish propaganda. The country had become isolationist. The big cry was: “America first! No war!” Our people had no interest in Europe’s problems. When one boatload of Jewish men, women and children sought asylum in one of our harbors, they were turned back and returned to certain death in Europe’s concentration camps.
It was a stormy time of readjustment for me. Even though I held my scripture classes in the monastery, my mind was elsewhere. I was teaching about the wars of the Canaanites and the Philistines with the ancient tribes of Israel while all the while I was thinking about the Nazis and the anti-Semites of the 1900s, Anno Domini.
Fortunately for me I was introduced to the life of Edith Stein for the first time. I was told about the famous woman philosopher in Germany who had become a Catholic and Carmelite nun. She had offered her life to God for world peace and the welfare of her people, the Jews, before being put to death in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She became the one bright light shining out of the dark night of the Holocaust.
She was to be for me what Beatrice was to Dante in his Divine Comedy. She guided me through the inferno in which so many of her family and friends had lost their lives. Other members fled to Canada and South America seeking shelter. Her sister, Erna, with her husband and their two children came to America. Today, Susanne, one of these two children, is carrying on the work of her beloved aunt by her writings and is serving as a link with the past. I wish to give her most of the credit for my devotion to the cause of better understanding between Catholics and Jews. It has also been my good fortune to have met others like her in the various cities where our monasteries are located. Thanks be to God for their friendship.
Knowing a few facts about Edith Stein should endear her to all who are devoted to the Cross and Passion of Christ. This brilliant Doctor of Philosophy spent almost thirty years of her life searching for TRUTH. She found it in Christ on the Cross at the death of a friend. She, like our own St. Paul of the Cross, took the title “of the Cross” on her own becoming a Carmelite nun: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It meant everything to her. She was like another Paul the Apostle in trying to show her people “the power and wisdom of God” in the Cross in her effort to offset the image they had from the memory of past sufferings. She offered her life to God in atonement for the sins of the world. She understood the value of atonement. The fact that she was born on the Jewish Day of Atonement in 1891 was a joy that she shared in her mother’s stories to the family.
Blessed Teresa Blessed by the Cross, as Pope John Paul II referred to her in the beatification homily, was working on her book, The Science of the Cross, when the Storm Troopers came to take her and her sister, Rosa, to their deaths in Auschwitz. Her final hours place the stamp of authenticity on all that she had written. When she said to her sister, “Let us go for our people” she knew that she was entering into the work of the world’s redemption with her Divine Master and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. She had been married to Him “in the sign of the cross.” This was its final consummation.
Evidently her offering had been accepted in the heavenly court. In what better way can we explain all the wonderful events that have happened in the Church’s relations with the Jewish people since her death! I see her hand in the official teaching of Nostra Aetate in Vatican Council II. We have only to look at what the Pope taught us by his prayers offered Auschwitz, with his many visits with the Jewish leaders in every major city to which he has travelled. When he went to the Great Synagogue in Rome to pray with its Rabbi and people, it marked the first time that a Pope had done this since the days of St. Peter and other Apostles. The crowing of these events occurred in 1994 in the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel. Edith Stein, in 1933, had written to Pope Pius XI asking for an encyclical to condemn Anti-Semitism. I am sure she would have accepted all these wonders as an answer to her prayers.