Sitting in her wheelchair and tethered to a constant supply of oxygen, 84-year-old Sr. Rose Thering doesn’t exactly fit the image of a righteous crusader for change. But this Dominican sister who challenged the Catholic Church’s long-held teachings regarding the Jewish people has been an unlikely hero in the decades-long struggle to change Catholic attitudes. Through her doctoral research, which played a pivotal role in Vatican II, and her activism since then, this diminutive nun from the Midwest has been instrumental in officially changing the Catholic Church’s position on its relationship with Jews and reversing the Church’s teachings that blamed Jews for the death of Jesus.
Thering’s lifelong commitment to fostering healthy Jewish-Catholic relations is the subject of Sr. Rose’s Passion an Academy Award-nominated documentary that was recently honored as Best Documentary Short at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival.
On the eve of the film’s television debut (Cinemax on Tuesday, May 24, 7:00pm), BustedHalo spoke with Sr. Rose, now a professor emerita of education at Seton Hall University, about the documentary and her life’s work promoting honest dialogue between Catholics and Jews.
BustedHalo: You grew up on a dairy farm in rural Plain, Wisconsin, which at the time was a largely homogeneous Catholic community. How was it that you first became interested in Catholic-Jewish relations?
Sr. Rose Thering: It was the negative teaching I was given in my school textbooks. They didn’t tell me all of the truths, for example, that God is good and we are all his children. Now Abraham, Isaac and Jacob weren’t baptized. Does that mean that they were going to limbo? Also, there were no Jews around where I grew up. I didn’t learn that Jesus was Jewish and that all the apostles were Jewish. From all of my textbooks it looked as if Jesus was Christian.
All of this was in my grade school books, taught by my teachers, my parents, by my teachers in high school. All this was also in the books I was supposed to use when I went out to teach. I had a first grader say to me, “Look at what the bad Jews did.” I had to take him to another classroom and talk to him. That the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus was an ongoing Catholic teaching until Vatican II. Thank God for Vatican II and for John the XXIII and for Paul VI.
BH: Your dissertation research examined the Catholic church’s teachings about Jews and other non-Catholics in Catholic textbooks and other writings. What kinds of things did you find?
SRT: Terrible things—just terrible things. The Jews were accused of deicide, of killing Jesus.
BH: What was it like to be a woman pursuing her doctorate at a Catholic university in the 1950’s? Were people supportive of your work?
SRT: It was a good experience, though it was a lot of work. It really wore me out, because my subject matter wasn’t exactly light.
BH: Before the Second Vatican Council, what traces of anti-Semitism were there in Catholic liturgy?
SRT: Every time we read from the New Testament, if the minister or priest hasn’t checked it, we can be reading something that is very anti-Jewish. For example when we read the Passion and make it sounds like the Jews cried out, “Crucify him,” and have the whole congregation say it.
Anything that refers to the Passion comes out negatively until people are told ahead of time that Jesus chose to die for our sins. We, humans, were the ones who nailed Jesus to the cross. The Jews crucified no one. The Romans crucified people. The documents of Vatican II say that we are not supposed to blame Jews at the time of Jesus and certainly not Jews today.
During Holy Week, on Good Friday, we used to say prayers for all different groups of people, first in Latin, then later in English. We used to pray for the perfidious Jews, which meant the non-believing Jews.
BH: How is the liturgy as we see it today connected to Catholicism’s Jewish roots?
SRT: In Mass that we offer, the priest washes his hands. And when do Jews wash their hands? Jews wash their hands before they eat. The celebrant says the same meal prayer that Jews say today, but we weren’t told that when the Mass changed into the English. When we talk about the “Our Father” we say that we pray with our Protestant brethren. Why don’t we include the connection with all the Jewish things?
BH: It has been said that your doctoral research was in part, responsible for the issuing of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”). How did this come to be?
SRT: The first time I really learned about it was when St. Louis University gave me their alumni merit award. In the citation they read that “seldom does the research of one of its doctoral candidates change the teaching in the Catholic Church and inspire a positive reaction.” Then I realized that my work had helped form the documents on ecumenism and interfaith relations.
A man named Rabbi Mark Tenenbaum—whom I knew because I often worked with him when I had been giving ecumenical missions, took the copy to Cardinal Bea [a German Jesuit scholar who enriched relations between Catholics and Jews], and there was a wonderful man named Monsignor John M. Oesterreicher [one of the chief architects of Nostra Aetate] who also knew about my work.
BH: What effect do you think Pope John Paul II has had on Catholic-Jewish relations? Do you think Pope Benedict XVI will continue on this trajectory?
SRT: John Paul II’s documents speak loudly and clearly. He wrote one document on the Holocaust, one on how to teach and preach about Judaism. But the greatest thing he did was going to Israel, when he told everyone that Jews are saved. He said that the covenant God has made with Jews has never been broken. His actions speak even louder than his words. He said that Jews are our elder brothers and sisters and that we learn from them.
Pope Benedict XVI has said he will continue it, and I will take him at his word. If he forgets it I’m sure we will remind him, diplomatically and gently, of what he has promised. Also, the new pope has taken the name Benedict. The Benedictine sisters are a wonderful group of nuns who work for peace and progress, combine work, prayer, and spirituality. All those are all good things.
BH: To what extent does anti-Semitism still exist today?
SRT: A lot. We’ve made progress, a lot of progress with John Paul II and with John XXIII. I hope and pray we don’t go back to page one and dig up the old ugliness.
BH: The documentary shows you viewing a copy of The Passion of the Christ. Do you think this film has been detrimental to Christian-Jewish relations?
SRT: In that film there is so much hatred, so much violence you almost forgot what Jesus did. Jesus should have been dead by the time he got to the cross with all that they did to him. In that film you see little Jewish boys turned into devils, and the Jews were all wearing prayer shawls. The whole thing was made as if the Jews killed Jesus, and Pilate came off a saint.
BH: So you think the film is anti-Semitic?
SRT: It could be perceived that way…you saw it in the film.
BH: What advice do you have for young Catholics who wish to work toward strong Catholic-Jewish relations in the future?
SRT: There is a teaching that we are all God’s children. Each is created in God’s image and likeness. That’s an important idea. God made us a little less than the angels. Also—whatever God has created, it is good, which means black people, white people, Cubans, Mexicans, Latinos African Americans, Caucasians, Italians, Germans, Polish…all are children of God. Each of us needs to come to understand that we need each other, we need to accept each other. We need to work with one another, need to reach out to one another, need to love one another, that is the important message.
To be a better Christian you need to find out where you are rooted. Take a good look at Judaism. Our roots are in Judaism. Jewish people have much to teach us. We must learn from our elder brothers and sisters. Read one of Elie Wiesel’s books—if you’ve read Night, read it again. You will find things in there that you didn’t understand. Begin with the Hebrew Scriptures, the First Testament. Read a little bit each day, if possible.
BH: Do you think the documentary’s Oscar nomination has helped spread your message to more people? Did you attend the Oscars?
SRT: Yes, definitely. No, I didn’t attend. I’m on oxygen around the clock, which would have made it difficult.
BH: Did you attend the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival?
SRT: Yes, I did, and it was very interesting. I had a nurse take me and go with me. It was very exciting and I had not seen the film until that night. I could have seen it before then but I chose not to. My response was, “Wow.” The creator Oren Jacoby covered 2000 years of history in 20 minutes—that Jews have suffered persecution, up until the Vatican document was published.
BH: What was the experience of filming the documentary like?
SRT: Very difficult at my age, and especially with being on oxygen morning, noon and night, [for pulmonary hypertension] it wasn’t easy. My first answer when they approached me was “No,” and my second answer was “No.”
When they explained to me that it would help the Sr. Rose Thering endowment at Seton Hall, where they have tuition scholarships for teachers so they can have knowledge about Jewish history, I said “Yes, this needs to happen, I will do the film. All the schools of New Jersey will watch the documentary now, and it has been translated into Polish and German, and will soon be translated into Dutch.