Remembering Vatican II's Nostra Aetate - Transformative & Far Reaching

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
23 Oct 2015

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP

Fifty years ago on 28 October 1965, the Second Vatican Council released a five paragraph declaration entitled: Nostra Aetate - In Our Time. This short document had a powerful impact and not only transformed Catholic and Jewish relationships but led to dialogue, understanding and respect with the world's other non-Christian religions.

Now as the world prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australia, the NSW Board of Deputies, the Australian Catholic University and the Sydney Jewish Museum have joined together to celebrate this milestone by hosting an historic symposium where scholars, theologians, rabbis and Church leaders will discuss "the past, present and future of the Christian Jewish Relationship."

To be held at The Great Synagogue on Elizabeth Street, the symposium will feature presentations by outstanding national and international scholars throughout next Wednesday, 28 October. This will be followed by an evening session when keynote addresses on Nostra Aetate, and the Catholic and Jewish Relationship, will be delivered by the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP and the Chief Minister of the Great Synagogue, Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton.

Both men are internationally-acclaimed scholars. Prior to discerning his vocation, Archbishop Fisher graduated in law with honours from the University of Sydney and practiced as a lawyer in Sydney. After entering the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) he later obtained a Bachelor of Theology and graduated with a Doctorate in Bio Ethics from Oxford University.

Rabbi Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Elton grew up in Britain and prior to joining the Rabbinate, attended Cambridge University where he graduated with a Masters in History. He went on obtain a Doctorate in Jewish Studies at London University. He spent seven years with Britain's Ministry of Justice working as the Lord Chancellor's secretary before taking a year's sabbatical and deciding to join the Rabbinate. He spent four years training at New York's Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. An accomplished writer, his 2014 book, "Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970 won wide acclaim.

Until his appointment last June to The Great Synagogue in Sydney, Rabbi Elton was Rabbinic Fellow at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.

"The Archbishop and Rabbi Elton are outstanding speakers as well as scholars and will offer new perspectives and important insights into the Catholic Jewish relationship, and the ongoing relevance and importance of Nostra Aetate," says Sister Giovanni Farquer RSJ, Director of the Archdiocese's Commission of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

One of the driving forces behind the landmark symposium on Nostra Aetate at The Great Synagogue, Sr Giovanni says in the more desire to fully understand and appreciate the far reaching power and potential of the document handed down by the Second Vatican Council half a century ago, it is important to understand the context out of which it was created.

"Two historic world events offer a shorthand definition of that context - the watershed of two world wars, Hiroshima and Auschwitz, both of which propelled the urgency of the deliberations of the Council Fathers," she explains.

Dr Judith Banki

Convened by Pope John XXIII, who was canonised last year, the Second Vatican Council opened on 11 October 1962 at time when the Cold War was at its height and the threat of nuclear annihilation was palpable.

"It was also the time that the world was realising the full extent of the Jewish-Nazi genocide. The Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann had just taken place and the Diary of a Young Girl had become a publishing and movie phenomenon," Sr Giovanni says.

In the wake of the Holocaust where six million Jews lost their lives, Pope John XXIII met with Jules Isaac, a Jewish scholar and historian, who presented him with a lengthy document summarising Catholic discrimination towards the Jewish people, and urged the Pope to use Vatican II to move beyond what he called "this sad period."

The Pope asked Cardinal Augustin Bea to meet with Isaac, and three months later commissioned the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to include the Jewish Question in its preparations for Vatican II. The Cardinal and 39 members of the Secretariat held vigorous and relentless debates over the declaration that would become known as Nostra Aetate.

Over the next three years there would be drafts and redrafts, more debate, argument but finally in  1965 two years after the death of St John XXIII, and with Pope Paul VI now in charge of Vatican II, the declaration known as Nostra Aetate was accepted by Council Fathers.

Cardinal Cassidy

For the first time the Church officially condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and stated that Jews cannot be held responsible for the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. The Declaration by the Bishops also announced the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy" in other religious traditions and urged Catholics to pursue "dialogue and collaboration" with people of all different faiths.

Sr Giovanni says the Second Vatican Council had a profound impact on the self-image and life of the Catholic Church, with the Declaration of Nostra Aetate being one of the fruits as well as one of the  Council's most important documents.

"The Declaration Nostra Aetate was dedicated wholly to a positive reflection on other living faiths. New ground was broken. Nostra Aetate captured in an unique way the intimate link in human history between religions and cultures, which are distinguishable but not inseparable," she says adding that the Declaration explicitly exhorts Christian believers to "acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral goods, as well as the socio-cultural values to be found in others."

Among the Popes in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council each of whom actively contributed to the implementation of Nostra Aetate, St John Paul II took up the link between religion and culture with remarkable energy and passion.

"In his writings and verbal exhortations he persistently affirmed the active presence of the Spirit of God mysteriously present in the heart of every person. St John Paul II was ever conscious of the genesis of Nostra Aetate from what was described by many as the "the Jewish Question," Sr Giovanni says recalling how as Pope, St John Paul II continued to emphasise the significance of the heart of the declaration is the relationship of the Church to the Jewish people as the children of Abraham.

Dr Michael Costigan

"God has never revoked the gifts he bestowed on the Chosen People and the special Covenant made through Moses has never been revoked," she points out.

Since the declaration Nostra Aetate many examples can be quoted of the trust and growing relationship between Christians and Jews. One of the most telling examples came in the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 when St John Paul II presided at a special penitential service in St Peter's Basilica and one of the seven requests for pardon concerned "sins against the People of Israel."

"We have come a long way but we have a long way to go," says Sr Giovanni.

On 28 October in addition to the powerful keynote addresses by Archbishop Fisher and Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, and throughout the day there will be presentations by Dr Julie Kalman, an expert on the Jewish population in France in the 19th Century and Director of International Studies at Monash University, Victoria; Dr Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer, Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Researcher at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at ACU Melbourne; Dr Avril Alba, Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation at the University of Sydney; Dr Kee-Fook (Edmund) Chia, former Executive Secretary of Interreligious Dialogue for the Asian Bishops Conferences and currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Doctrinal Studies Department at ACU, Melbourne; Dr Dermot Nestor, Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy at ACU, Strathfield who has a special interest in the study of the Old Testament and early Judaism.

There will also be a presentation given by America's internationally renowned writer, lecturer and expert on interreligious affairs, Dr Judith Herschcopf Banki who wrote "The Image of the Jews in Catholic Teaching," a book that explored the memorandum that helped pave the way for the historic declaration, Nostra Aetate.

Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney's Commission of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations

In an address entitled "Nostra Aetate: Reflections of an Eyewitness," Dr Banki will track how as a result of the Council, a group of Christians and Jews made up of the world's scholars, activists, religious leaders and ordinary citizens have emerged committed to mutual respect and understanding, and to overcoming the sources of bigotry and discrimination in their own religious traditions.

Dialogue and understanding between faiths will help make the world a saner and safer place for our children, she believes. But like Sr Giovanni she adds we have come far, but there is still a long way to go.

The full text of the Declaration, Nostra Aetate can be downloaded from

To register for this landmark event on 28 October at the Great Synagogue on Castlereagh St, email Inquiries about the symposium can also be made to