Pope Francis' latest work/document/encyclical/bull/exhortation/stream-of-consciousness, Evangelii Gaudium, has in some circles re-ignited the 1960s and 1970s debate concerning the [in]validity of the Old Covenant. As the Byzantine Paschal Gopsel pericope says "The Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). The words of St. John are enough for me on this matter. A better, and more detailed, summary of the Church's general outlook on modern Judaism and the idea of Covenant can be found in Fr. John Hunwicke's series on the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which, Hunwicke reminds us, has not earned the wrath of the SSPX, a group more than willing to pounce upon any perceived deviations within the documents of the most recent Church council.
On an entirely unrelated note, the first time I heard of Evangelii Gaudium was in the confession box at a local parish. I had to confess a sin concerning the lending of money at interest. The priest, a professed union member, spent five very long minutes telling me about "the Holy Father's latest letter. In it, and it's hundreds of paragraphs long, he really lays out how everything in our society and in our economy is just so unfair." I got three Hail Mary's.
I mention the papal document in order to opine on a liturgical and theological topic that come to my mind once and year and which I have never considered "on paper" before now. One reason is absence of opportunity. Another is that my judgment on this matter has evolved over the last four years or so. The matter is the Good Friday prayer for the Jews that existed mostly prior to Papa Ratzinger's change in 2008 and Papa Roncalli's change in 1960. The prayer that caused so much consternation is as follows:
Orémus et pro pérfidis Iudaeis: ut Deus et Dóminus noster áuferat velámen de córdibus eórum; ut et ipsi agnóscant Iesum Christum, Dóminum nostrum.
Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, qui étiam iudáicam perfídiam a tua misericórdia non repéllis: exáudi preces nostras, quas pro illíus pópuli obcæcatióne deférimus; ut, ágnita veritátis tuæ luce, quæ Christus est, a suis ténebris eruántur. Per eundem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Unlike the other solemn intercessions on Good Friday the clergy and people make no genuflection between the announcement of the intention and the actual collect.
Initially I did not think this prayer bigoted, but I did consider it unnecessarily inflammatory given the use of the term "pro perfidis Iudaeis." That all changed when then-Pope Benedict issued a shiny new prayer for the Jews to be used during 1962 rite Good Friday services. A friend of mine reacted positively to the new prayer, saying it brought us away from "tribal hate" and towards a more brotherly outlook on our antecedent religion. At this point I began to re-consider my position. Benedict's prayer, although different from the traditional one, at least asks for conversion, in stark contrast to the vague platitude in the Pauline Missal's Holy Week.
The first clue in my re-evaluation was the true contextual meaning of that term "perfidis," which does not mean "perfidious" in the modern understanding (wretched, wicked, evil), but rather "faithless." This ought not be anti-Semitic. It is merely a deduction. Anyone who does not believe in Christ lacks proper faith.
The next, and most profound, point makes the loss of this prayer a liturgical, historical, and theological travesty. The intention asks that God might "remove the veil from their hearts," which the collect proper continues to petition that the Jews might "acknowledge the light of Your Truth, Which is Christ" and that they may be "rescued from their darkness." To understand the deeper meaning and truth of this prayer we must recall what happened at the end of the Crucifixion.
"Jesus, when He had taken the vinegar, said: 'It is consummated.' And bowing His head he gave up the ghost" (John 19:30). In tract 119 St. Augustine writes "What, but all that prophecy had foretold so long before? And then, because nothing now remained that still required to be done before He died, as if He, who had power to lay down His life and to take it up again, had at length completed all for whose completion He was waiting." Our Lord's death on the Cross completes everything the Father promised in the Old Covenant and which He appointed His Son to do for our sake. The prophecies and promises are, at this point, fulfilled. Fulfillment, in the Church, does not mean something finished. Rather it means something brought to fruition.
Consequently, the covenant God made with the Jews did not vanish entirely, but became something else, something greater and, as the angel told the shepherds when He was born, a great thing "for all peoples" (Luke 2). The God Who dwelt only among the Jews and Who only revealed His intentions to them and Who only acted among them now dwells and reveals Himself and acts among all people and for the good of all. "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), but not limited to the Jews. The Old Covenant, now something greater, ends as it was. The Temple veil "was rent in two from the top even to the bottom" (Matthew 27:51). The veil, which concealed the awesome qualitative presence of God within the Temple, is entirely torn when a new, and greater, covenant is sealed in the Blood of Christ. Here is a New Covenant for all people. God, no longer hidden behind the Temple veil, is now accessible to all people. St. Paul reflects on this in his epistle to the Hebrews (9:1-8):
"The former indeed had also justifications of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made the first, wherein were the candlesticks, and the table, and the setting forth of loaves, which is called the holy. And after the second veil, the tabernacle, which is called the holy of holies: Having a golden censer, and the ark of the testament covered about on every part with gold, in which was a golden pot that had manna, and the rod of Aaron, that had blossomed, and the tables of the testament. And over it were the cherubims of glory overshadowing the propitiatory: of which it is not needful to speak now particularly. Now these things being thus ordered, into the first tabernacle the priests indeed always entered, accomplishing the offices of sacrifices. But into the second, the high priest alone, once a year: not without blood, which he offereth for his own, and the people' s ignorance: The Holy Ghost signifying this, that the way into the holies was not yet made manifest, whilst the former tabernacle was yet standing."
We have come halfway to understanding the significance of the older Good Friday prayer, but only halfway.
What does a veil, curtain, or wall do? It keeps something concealed, but also protects that something from exterior elements, usually light. Our Lord said "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12). The Jewish leaders persuaded the crowds gathered in the Roman praetorium to reject Jesus and ask for the release of a bad man. After dissolving themselves of the Savior promised to them Jerusalem fell and the Temple, the place of God's covenant with them, burned to the ground. What survived was not Judaism in the pre-Christian sense, but a new sort of Judaism meant for scattered local communities and based on the Jewish people's experiences as the minority in an increasingly Christian world (the so-called "modernist" George Tyrrell wrote an interesting letter on this subject, concluding that Catholicism is the real continuation of Judaism). Rabbis replaced priests; synagogues replaced the Temple; and the Talmud became a new holy book to the Jewish people rather than the New Testament books. This reformed, leaner Judaism would help Jewish culture survive its coming difficulties and would also insulate Jewish people from the light of Christ—as it was founded partially in reaction to what Christ did. When the Father tore down the Temple veil to reveal Christ's light to all a new veil ascended to shield that light.
No one should conclude that this is anti-Semitic. Fr. Hunwicke points out that Arabs are Semites, too. This prayer is about Judaism, not Jews as an ethnic group. On some level the concepts "faithless" persons and of hiding the light of Christ with a "veil" applies to all non-believers. And yet the Jewish people, given their unique place in the chain of event that led to Christ's Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, surely warrant a unique place in the liturgical prayers, particularly given their once exclusive covenant with God.
I have never felt comfortable with the description of practitioners of post-Temple Judaism as our "older brothers" in the faith, given that the Judaism which preceded Catholicism no longer exists. I suspect the shift in attitude towards Judaism and the eventual revision of this prayer results from [humanly understandable] European guilt that followed the Holocaust. The pope who initially altered this prayer (John XXIII) aided Pius XII's efforts to obstruct deportations of Jews in Turkey. The pope who introduced the 1970 prayer (Paul VI) served the same Pius XII as his secretary during the War. And the pope who issued a new prayer for the 1962 Missal (Benedict XVI) was a young German man during the War and who, certainly, has a greater cultural association with the Holocaust than the other two.
And yet I maintain that the loss of this prayer is something worthy of re-consideration. It contains a wealth of lessons about covenants, the meaning of the Crucifixion, the openness of Christ's grace, and the danger of veiling Christ's light. During the first fourteen or so centuries, or more, of this prayer's use no one decided to attempt mass extermination of the Jewish people. Hitler's anti-Semitism had nothing to do with Catholicism. His was a neo-pagan, racially-based hatred steeped in the eugenicist delusions pervading secular culture in the early 20th century—not that modern "intellectuals" have disowned the spirit of this delusion. Axing this prayer added very little and pushed aside very much.