On the Evangelization of the Jewish People – The Surprising View of the Pope

In his book Jesus of Nazareth Part II The Holy Father takes up the issue of the Evangelization of the Jewish People and offers a position that I must say quite surprises me. As an obedient son of the Church, I must also say that it is for me somewhat of a corrective position. For the position he annunciates has not been my point of view. I trust the Pope and must now consider how I must amend my prior thinking based on his observations. Yet, truth be told, I am still a bit stunned by what he says.

It is a fact that the Pope has set his reflections outside the Papal Magisterium, for he says in the forward to volume 1:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the Magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8).  Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial good will without which there can be no understanding. (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, Forward, xxiv)

Nevertheless, I cannot simply regard him as any sort of theologian with whom I may dispute. He, even when he speculates outside the formal magisterial structures, commands my respect and my soul ought to be teachable even in these matters.

So, with all this in mind let me set forth  what the Pope teaches about the evangelization of the Jewish People and offer a few reflections.

Background – The Pope, in Chapter Two of Jesus of Nazareth (Vol. 2) is reflecting on the evangelical mission of the Church to preach the Gospel to all the nations. The urgency with which the Apostles undertake this mission is related to the teaching of Jesus that the Gospel must first be preached to all the nations prior to his coming (Matt. 24:14; Mk 13:10). Thus, the End Time can come only after the Gospel has been brought to all peoples. The Pope calls this period “the time of the Gentiles” (Cf. Rom.  11:25-26).

During this time, he argues that the principle focus and mission of the Church is ad Gentes (to the nations). For as Paul teaches,  A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so, all Israel will be saved (Rom.  11:25-26). For now, the Pope argues, the Church’s priority is, thus, the Gentiles.

Let me allow the Pope to speak:

In this regard, the question of Israel’s mission has always been present….Here I should like to recall the advice given by Bernard of Clairvaux to his pupil Pope Eugene III on this matter. He reminds the Pope that his duty of care extends not only to Christians, but: “You also have obligations toward unbelievers, whether Jew, Greek, or Gentile” (De Consideratione III/1, 2). Then he immediately corrects himself and observes more accurately: “Granted, with regard to the Jews, time excuses you; for them a determined point in time has been fixed, which cannot be anticipated. The full number of the Gentiles must come in first. But what do you say about these Gentiles?. . . …(De Consideratione III/1, 3).

Hildegard Brem comments on this passage as follows: “In the light of Romans 11:25, the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God, ‘until the full number of the Gentiles comes in’ (Rom 11:25)….(quoted in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Winkler, I, p. 834).

 The prophecy of the time of the Gentiles and the corresponding mission is a core element of Jesus’ eschatological message. The special mission to evangelize the Gentiles, which Paul received from the risen Lord, is firmly anchored in the message given by Jesus to his disciples before his Passion. The time of the Gentiles—“the time of the Church”—which, as we have seen, is proclaimed in all the Gospels, constitutes an essential element of Jesus’ eschatological message.

….In the meantime, Israel retains its own mission. Israel is in the hands of God, who will save it “as a whole” at the proper time, when the number of the Gentiles is complete….the evangelization of the Gentiles was now the disciples’ particular task…. (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 2, pp. 44-46).

To be honest this notion is completely new to me. I have never considered the Jewish people a temporarily lower priority for the Church, let alone temporarily exempt from the evangelical mission of the Church. The initial thought of this troubles me. Yet the Pope seems clearly to hold this view, for though he quotes others, he does not critique their views.

I have always considered the Jewish People to be an essential focus of the evangelical mission of the Church, here and now. It seems to me that Paul, as he evangelized went first to the Synagogues and gained whatever converts he could, and then turned to the Gentiles. He speaks of his ministry as bringing good or ill to those who obey or disobey, Jew first, then Gentile (Rom 2:9-10).This, at least, was my thinking and what it was based on.

Yet now, having laid my teaching at the feet of Peter, it appears that I may have “run in vain” (cf. Gal 2:2). The Pope seems to hold, (granted he does not formally teach it), that the time of the Jews is only later. For now, the focus is the Gentiles.

In a way this explains a lot. I have often been puzzled over the low priority given the mission to the Jews in Rome. There even seems to be a certain apologetic opinion among some in Rome, that the Jews should not be “proselytized” and evangleized, and that those who do so, are doing something wrong. Some have even gone so far as to say the Jews are already in a saving covenant (which I do not thing the Pope is saying here).  I have usually presumed such positions were more than influenced by a European anxiety and (an understandable) guilt over the Holocaust that made Church officials anxious to suggest the Jewish people were lacking something, in not having faith in Christ. I never considered a theological basis for the position as the Pope has presented it here.

I have read some rather vigorous discussions about Romans 11 where Paul writes, as already noted: I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved. (25-26).

  1. Some have interpreted this passage to mean that the Jewish People will all be saved ultimately.
  2. Some think it means literally every Jew,
  3. Others think that most Jews will be saved and that “all Israel” is more of a corporate notion than an “every man, woman and child,” notion.
  4. Still others, such as I, have thought that “all Israel” refers to believers in Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile. For, it would seem, that Paul defines Israel only as those who accept the Messiah, Jesus. For, in Romans 11 he describes Israel as an olive tree. And unbelieving branches were pruned off (11:20), and believing branches (Gentiles) were grafted in. The pruned branches can be re-grafted, but only if they come to faith in Jesus. Thus, in the end, “all Israel” means believing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ.  And though surely Paul is hopeful that many of the pruned branches will be re-grafted, it has seemed to me that “all Israel” can refer only to true believers in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile.

If I understand the Pope however, it would appear that my grasp of Romans 11 (as stated in # 4 above) has been flawed, at least insofar as the position he annunciates. If I interpret him properly, He sees “all Israel” as referring to those Jews who will be saved at the end of the age.

 So here is to me a stunning passage that requires me to carefully rethink how I have understood the matter. This is so even though the Pope does not claim magisterial authority, at least for me, since I respect even his non-infallible teaching and want to give it serious consideration and assent.

Some Questions – And yet I wonder of the practical application of this view and have some questions. Please understand that these questions are not rhetorical, they are actual questions I have because I want to learn.

  1. Does this mean that it is always wrong to seek Jewish converts?
  2. Or does this position of the Pope simply explain why the mission field of the Jewish people has been meager? (For, as Paul says, a hardening has come upon them for a season until the full number of Gentiles enters).
  3. While it is possible to understand a corporate conversion of the Jews at the end of the age, what of the Jews today and yesterday? Are they included in this notion? What will come of them?
  4. Are the Jewish People today in an operative covenant with God that we as Catholics ought to recognize (as some suggest in quoting Rom 11:29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable)?  Or did the Old Covenant end with the destruction of the temple? (as others suggest in quoting Hebrews 8:13 which says, By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear)?

Well, enough said, you need not, dear reader, follow me all the way as I think out loud. But in a brief couple of paragraphs the Pope has managed to powerfully question the way I have thought. I still have questions but I am willing to be taught. Perhaps some of you have wrestled with this already and have something to offer to the discussion. Above all, I am sure the Pope would be happy to know that his book has us thinking, discussing and praying.