Mayte Rodríguez: "Jews and Christians must work and dialogue on everything that unites us".

A few weeks ago, the chapter house of the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid became an interreligious meeting point for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Center for Judeo-Christian Studies. Half a century "being the Church's official institution for dialogue with Judaism." as Mayte Rodríguez, director of the Center, points out.

Maria José Atienza-January 3, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes

The history of the Center for Judeo-Christian StudiesThe Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, dependent on the archbishopric of Madrid, cannot be understood without mentioning the congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. 

This congregation, founded under the inspiration of Theodore and Alphonse Ratisbonne, two brothers of Jewish origin, who converted to Catholicism and were ordained priests, has as its charism the work and prayer in the Church to reveal God's faithful love for the Jewish people and to bring about the kingdom of God on earth through fraternal collaboration. 

This has been the line of these 50 years of work, as Mayte Rodriguez, a laywoman who came to know the charism of the Sisters of Sion shortly after arriving in Spain and who, since then, has been part of this Center of Studies, emphasizes in this interview. 

When was the Center for Judeo-Christian Studies founded? 

-Around 1960, Sister Esperanza and Sister Ionel arrived in Spain. The first thing they did was to go to the Jewish community, which welcomed them with open arms. It was there that the foundation of the Judeo-Christian Friendship, approved by the Archbishopric of Madrid.

We are talking about before Vatican Council II. After the Council, Cardinal Tarancón decided to erect a Center for Judeo-Christian StudiesThe Church is an official institution of the Church.

In fact, we are the only official institution of the Church for dialogue with Judaism here in Spain. The Center, as such was established on September 21, 1972, entrusting its management to the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion.

Why is the Congregation established in Spain? 

-To understand this, we must refer to the Seelisberg meeting: in the summer of 1947, a large group of Jews and Christians from 19 countries met in Seelisberg, Switzerland. Among them were Jacques Maritain and Jules Isaac. That meeting was key. There, it became clear, among other things, how a certain part of the horror of the recent Jewish holocaust could have come from an erroneous vision of Christians towards Jews. We are referring to ideas such as the Jews being "guilty of the death of Christ". Seelisberg promotes what we know as "Jewish-Christian friendships". 

It is true that, in Spain, not being a participant in World War II, perhaps we did not have the same perception regarding the persecution of the Jews as we had in France or Germany, but in Spain there was an evident Sephardic, Jewish root. Not in vain, the Jews are divided into Sephardic and Ashkenazi, the first of Spanish origin, and the rest, of Central European roots. 

In this story, what role does the statement play Nostra Aetate?

-In recent years, Church documents have multiplied in this regard. It must be recognized that there have been centuries of misunderstandings and this has led to misunderstandings, misunderstandings, etc. 

Much progress has been made in recent years. In this regard, the contribution of the Second Vatican Council and, especially, of the declaration Nostra Aetate, has been fundamental. This is due, in my opinion, to three persons: St. John XXIII, Jules Isaac and Cardinal Agustin Bea SJ.

After this meeting with Seelisberg, Jules Isaac asked for an interview with St. John XXIII. In that interview he expressed his sorrow because, although he did not find any anti-Semitic point in the Gospels, he wondered where the historical animosity towards the Jewish people came from. In that conversation, Isaac asks the Pope: "Holiness, can I bring hope to my people?", to which John XXIII replied: "You are entitled to more than just hope." After that interview, the Pope entrusted Cardinal Agustin Bea with the preparation of what would later become the declaration Nostra Aetate. This declaration was very controversial: for some sectors of the Church it fell short, and for others it was excessive. There was also misunderstanding on the part of the other confessions. In the end Nostra Aetate came through and that was the beginning of the change. Not only on the part of the Catholics, but, in the case of the Jewish community, how they saw us Christians. 

Has there also been a change of mentality on the part of the Jewish community?

-We must bear in mind that for the Jews, we Christians have often been considered as a kind of sect, a heresy of Judaism. 

Significant steps have been taken in recent years. For example, in recent documents the Jews recognize that we Christians are part of God's infinite plan. Not only that, but in a certain way, we follow parallel paths and when God wills, we will meet. In the meantime, we have to work and dialogue in everything that unites us. This is very important. 

It is really paradoxical, but what unites us the most with our older brothers in faith is also what separates us the most: the figure of Christ. Jesus was Jewish, his mother was Jewish, the apostles were Jewish... The big difference is that for us he is the Messiah and for them he is a great rabbi. At this point, I often refer to the name of the center's magazine, El Olivo. This magazine owes its name to these words from chapter 11 of the letter to the Romans: "If the root is holy, so are the branches. On the other hand, if some of the branches were broken off, while you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in their place and made partaker of the root and sap of the olive tree." The Jews are the trunk, and if we are holy it is because they are holy too. Many times, within the Christians themselves we appreciate that there is a distant vision of the Jewish people. I think it is more a lack of interest than anything else. However, thanks to God we see that this is changing and there is more openness. But much more is needed. 

Now that 50 years have passed, what is the Center's outlook for the future?

-I think that this Center is something that God wants, so He will know what to do for the future. We have been through, and are still going through, a lot of ups and downs. Every morning, when I arrive at the Center, I go to the chapel we have here and say to the Lord, "I am very happy. "This is yours, let's see what you do!". I think it is that, a work of God. We work for his people and by his people, and those of us who feel this affection see it that way. 

In the Center almost all of us are volunteers, even the magnificent cadre of teachers of our conferences do it voluntarily. When the Sisters of Sion arrived in Spain and gathered a group of intellectuals, politicians, etc. the key point was that they loved the Jewish people and wanted to spread their culture, and that is what we continue to do. In addition to lecture series on various topics related to Judaism and Christianity, we have Hebrew courses, open to everyone. Most of the people who come here are older, because they have more time and are interested in learning about the history of the Jewish people or the relationship with Christians. We would like more young people to come, but with the limited time they have, it is difficult. We also have a very good library, open to scholars and teachers, on everything related to the Jewish and Christian world. 

How would you define the current relationship with the Jewish community? 

-Excellent. Thank God, we have a fraternal relationship. There is a constant cooperation among us and it is necessary to emphasize that they help us in many different ways: both to maintain this Center and to collaborate many times in charitable works of the Church, for example, in Caritas campaigns or food collections. Some of the most endearing moments are when we accompany each other on special occasions. We celebrate with them holidays such as Yom Kippur o Purim and they come on January 20, which is the annual holiday of our center. We have to take into account that, in addition, many of the Jews living in Spain have gone to Catholic schools or universities and our holidays are very close to them.

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