Authors: James Carroll
Tags: #Religion, #Christianity, #Catholic, #History
Mary's enemies would be forever mine. As much as I remembered the Pharisees and the Sadducees who trailed along behind, the High Priest with his turban, and the Rabbis with their robes and hooked noses, I remembered the Jews with their conical hats and unsubtle horns, which made them like devils. Michelangelo had put horns on his great
because he was influenced by a mistranslation, I would later learn, of the Hebrew word for "rays."
The rays of mystical light streaming from Moses' forehead after seeing God thus became diabolical protrusions. These were the only "Jews" I ever knew of in Germany, a classic instance of the Christian's negative fantasy. Those hooked noses, like the blood on the brow of Jesus, must have been false, but that did not occur to me.
I remembered those "Jews" waving their knotted leather cords above their heads, to whip down on Jesus. As the tableaux passed before us, in my memory, the Passion was being read over loudspeakers. But why in English? I would wonder later. When the chorus of "Jews" cried out their "Crucify him!" I understood. Jews. Jews all. Jews forever with blood upon them and upon their children. The facts of the story were clear, and the evidence was irrefutable. "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not."
The whole meaning of the story of Jesus depended on his being rejected in the deepest and most hurtful way—a way to which Romans would forever be irrelevant. In the tableau featuring the apostles at supper, the image seared into every Christian imagination, and therefore mine—whether from Leonardo or just an illustrated children's Bible—there was only one Jew, as we knew by the purse at his belt, which tied him to Fagin, Shylock, and the shylock mobsters hired to do their tax evasion. And wasn't his name Judas, which itself said Jew?
A paradigmatic Holy Week pageant had scorched my teenage mind. I accepted its assumptions entirely. Surely the intensity of my reaction had to do with associating the Passion of Mary's son with my own sorrowful Catholic mother. The dramatically posed Mary of every
an avatar of static stoicism, was a figure of my own Mary, which was my mother's name. She had identified herself to me, from my earliest memory, as "the Blessed Mother's representative here on earth," a phrase she could utter without pompousness or irony, and which I accepted without question as the overlapping definition of both her authority and her virtue. If I could see Mary the mother of Jesus as my mother, it never occurred to me to complete the identification, despite my father's name of Joseph and my own initials, by embracing Jesus as my personal ideal. His victimhood was too extreme for that, and so was the venom of those who had hated him. My deeply felt ambition already ran in the opposite direction, which was at all costs to be well liked.
By this point in Germany, I knew no one who was Jewish, and so "jews" could begin to loom as fantasy figures, and did. This
Germany, and I knew to think of them as the doomed, as our new measure of victimhood, as the unredeemed. If I dared entertain a conscious thought of the Holocaust—while, of course, "deploring" what I had learned to call genocide—it would have nevertheless been to understand exactly how and why it happened.
But in truth, "jews" impinged on my awareness less than my mother did. As I came to the threshold of manhood in Germany, I faced the long-deflected truth of my situation, that having been put on earth to please her—being well liked by Mom was the point—I would have no choice but to join the company of those apostles whose unworthiness—in contrast to the Jews'—had been transformed by the miracle of Jesus' misery into holiness itself. The foundation of what remains my piety was poured here: the unwilled conviction that suffering precedes any hope of happiness; no, that suffering
happiness; or, no again, that suffering
happiness. This was the meaning of the bloodied body of Jesus and of the downcast eyes of Mary. And it was the meaning of the odd, horrible, irresistible thrill it was to behold them both at the deicide pageants, especially with my elbow pressed against my mother's.
Though I would have an equivalent and independent epiphany with my father—one tied to the imminence of nuclear Armageddon during the Berlin crisis of 1960, with the role of the horned Jews being played by the Soviets—the Rhineland pilgrimages of Holy Week awakened in me a vocational recognition to which my mother's presence was crucial—"crucial in the literal sense of
as pertaining to the
Both experiences would blossom in my Georgetown "vision" of the crucifix. But my mother provided the primordial flare of intimacy, my first felt sense of the living other whom I could recognize on the cross. The suffering and death of Jesus, which I learned firmly to believe he would have undergone for me alone, became proof of a trustworthy God.
Unknowingly I was treading a well-worn path—mother as sponsor of faith—along which not only Jesus had walked, but figures as varied, and as important to this story, as Constantine and Augustine, and much later, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. The point isn't to put myself in such exalted company, but to acknowledge the way a certain kind of boy is at the mercy of a certain kind of woman. As I came of age, even as an Elvis worshiper, a soldier's son, a cheerleader's boyfriend, my mother remained the measure of my imagination—religious, but also somehow erotic.
She was a former telephone girl. "Number, please," she'd say, instead of "What?" She smoked Chesterfields, leaving a crown of lipstick on the butts, which I would secretly put to my own lips. She sat with her legs crossed to swing her right foot to the Glenn Miller music in her head. I could watch that bouncing ankle as if it wore bobby sox. It would be my mother's ankle I thought of when I later read Freud, as the expression on the face of Bernini's Saint Teresa in the throes of Passion mysticism would remind me of the lipstick on those Chesterfields. Sexual longing, the desire for an infinite intimacy, a physically religious faith, and vice versa: the Word made flesh, the Body of Christ, the secret pleasure of pain—all this, consciously and unconsciously, I had from her. But my competition included my polio-stricken brother, whose bones were like those of the crucified. And so I could not be her
a favorite Gaelic endearment of hers. The "vein of her heart" was the sword through it, which was always Joe.
Yet I was the one to whom she showed her suffering. I was the one who went with her in Holy Week. Of all her men—in addition to Joe and Dad, there were my three younger brothers—I alone could look upon the streaked face of Jesus, could hear the throaty cries of Jews, could register the weight of the joined wooden beams. I alone, that is, could feel not what Jesus felt but what his stunned mother felt, and therefore what mine did. My mother's fingers in tan kid gloves, one hand clutching a rosary, the other pressing into the bone at my elbow. I too have bones. We had come to watch the murder of our God, which made me want to protect her. Later, as we shall see, the Church, at Vatican II, would tell the world this murder had not happened. Or rather, that the murderers had been not the Jews but—what, a generic human weakness? the sin of the world? an abstract evil to which all could be attached? The power of this story, the truth of it, was to be found in the particularity of its conflict. What would be left of that if the Jews were set aside? And what would be left of my own first religious intuition—that to stand
was necessarily to stand
? The drama of the Passion play made the thing clear, required a choice, and implied the eternal conscription that could prepare a boy to surrender his life. Only one future could be worthy of such emotion. Only one future could keep me where I knew absolutely I belonged—at our forsaken Lord's side, which was how to be at hers. Not for nothing do they call it Holy Mother Church.
"Then we went in and told my mother," Augustine writes of his conversion, "who was overjoyed. And when we went on to describe how it had all happened, she was jubilant with triumph and glorified You, who are powerful enough, and more than powerful enough, to carry out your purpose beyond all our hopes and dreams ... You converted me to yourself so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world, but stood firmly upon the rule of faith, where you had shown me to her in a dream so many years before." And here was the payoff for mothers' sons like Augustine and me: "And you turned her sadness into rejoicing, into joy far fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than any she had hoped to find in children begotten of my flesh."
As was true of Augustine's, mine was a commissioning into an army—not for nothing is its elite called the Legion of Mary—whose permanent enemy was the Jews.
"Truth? What is truth?" an exonerated Pilate asks. But Holy Week renditions of the Passion made my truth clear. The Jews of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with their pointy hats, soiled robes, and odd phylacteries, were doing for me by now what they had done for Augustine and all Christians since: telling me who I was by who I wasn't.
Peter Seligman, my first chum, was gone, replaced in this way by the Western figments of Christ's Passion, the only Jews I would know for a decade. Chief among them was not the wicked High Priest but Judas Iscariot, whom we knew as the only Jew among the Twelve. His Jewishness was evident not only in his greed but in his choice of suicide rather than forgiveness. I learned soon enough to think that if I abandoned my vocation to the priesthood, or turned against Holy Mother Church as a critic, I would be Judas too, which implied, No better than a Jew. When it came to that, in my much later association with Catholic dissenters, I would recognize dissent as the primordial Jewish crime, long before it was mine. The death of Judas proved that the savage hatred of this stiff-necked people—"His blood be upon us and upon our children!"—extended even to themselves.
6. My Rabbi
HE EVENTS OF
1933 to 1945 are the necessary background for understanding both why the Christian Church needed to change and then why it did. The key to that change among Catholics was John XXIII, the roly-poly peasant pope who replaced Pius XII in 1958. An elderly compromise candidate who was expected only to keep the Chair of Peter warm, he startled the Church by promptly announcing his intention to convene an Ecumenical Council for the purpose of
or updating. Pope John's immediate impact on the Church was the result of his magnanimous personality. His great heart was the perfect antidote to the wounded spirit of the age. I had my own moment in the presence of that large heart when Pope John received my family in a private audience at his residence, the Apostolic Palace—an honor paid my father because of his status as a senior Catholic in the American military. When the pope embraced me, I let myself fall for the first time into a sure trust in God's love, an experience that led to my entering a seminary less than two years later.
I knew nothing of this at the time, but for John XXIII, the definitive demonstration that the Church needed to change was its record in relation to the Jews. He had come to this not through an imagined projection of Jewish experience but by paying close attention to a Jew speaking for himself. As a papal legate in Turkey during World War II, when, still known as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he had provided counterfeit baptismal documents to Jews in flight from the Nazi onslaught, the future pope had firsthand experience of the Holocaust as it was happening. After the war, as the scope of the genocide came to light, Roncalli would have been like many Christians in deploring Nazi antisemitism. But he soon realized that a deeper encounter with the history that preceded it was necessary.
In 1948, the Jewish historian Jules Isaac published
Jesus and Israel,
a study of the connection between fundamental Christian belief, as enshrined especially in the New Testament, and Europe's endemic contempt for Judaism, which had reached critical mass with Hitler's program. Isaac's book challenged basic Christian assumptions and repudiated the caricature of Judaism found in the Gospels and elsewhere. Many Catholics reviled Isaac's work, but instead of shunning it, John XXIII took it in. He invited Isaac to meet with him in the Vatican, and the encounter took place in 1960. Isaac presented the pope with a copy of his book and proposed that the pontiff undertake to correct the anti-Jewish teachings of the Church. In his diary, Isaac describes the pope's reaction as positive, even warm.
Their highly publicized encounter was a first signal that fundamental shifts in Catholic attitudes were under way.
The greatest shift took place when, in 1962, Pope John convened the Vatican Council, a meeting of the world's 2,600 Catholic bishops, gathered in the nave of St. Peter's Basilica. There is reason to believe that the visit of Jules Isaac led Pope John to call on those bishops to take up as a priority the Church's relationship with the Jews.
This led to the milestone declaration
("In Our Time"), which includes these words: "Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred Synod wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies, and of brotherly dialogues." It is noteworthy that the whole project of the Church's reconsideration of "biblical and theological" assumptions, which has led to the most basic questioning of the Church's anti-Judaism, was undertaken at least partly in response, at the highest level, to a Jewish challenge offered in "brotherly dialogue."
Against nearly two thousand years of common Church teaching,
affirms that the covenant God made with the Jewish people has not been broken and that the ongoing vitality of the Jewish religion is part of God's plan. The council declared, "Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures."
In Part Two, we will address the unfinished business implied by this statement—namely, that such repudiation does indeed seem to follow from Christian Scripture—but here it is enough to say that the Vatican Council, responding to a vivid sense of the effect of the teaching of religious contempt, initiated a major move away from it.