I recently attended the memorial service of a distinguished and much-loved retired judge. He was a devout member of the Jewish faith, and the service was held at a well-known London synagogue. There were some fine tributes to him: He served Britain with dedication, giving of his best and bringing honor to our legal system.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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During the service, I was struck by how much Jews and Christians hold in common — the readings from sacred Scripture, for one, with the Psalms in particular being deeply familiar. One of the readings was “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” which we had at my own late father’s funeral in a Catholic church some years ago.
The singing in the synagogue was beautiful; it was easy to pray in such surroundings, and there was a great sense of the presence of God. The tributes paid spoke of values that really matter: family, loyalty, dedication, tradition, service. There was a sense of gratitude for a life well-lived, but also of awe and reverence as a human soul went to God. The prayers asked for God’s cleansing and that this man might be admitted to the place of peace and joy and rest. There was nothing bland or vague about it: There is but one God, and a human soul was going to meet Him. He was going to God surrounded by the words of the sacred Scriptures, chanted and read aloud in a place where he had prayed regularly all his life, trusting in God’s mercy.
I felt a sudden gratitude for living in a Church that, in Nostra Aetate, had cemented a bond of friendship between Christian and Jews. How sickening it is that there are still those who seek to oppose it (to be found, alas, among the Lefebvrists and their supporters). The Holy Father has clearly established the position of the Church, humbly speaking to warm applause at a Rome synagogue earlier this year where he lamented the Holocaust and proposing the Decalogue as a primary area for Jewish-Christian witness. He was emphatic: “The Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.”
I do hope that one person in particular — the author of a snide attack on the Holy Father’s synagogue visit — read those words, and reads them again now. The author of the nasty piece urged that this sort of visit be the pope’s last. It won’t be. From now on, papal visits to synagogues will be something quite normal, as will mutual greetings such as that recently sent by Pope Benedict XVI to the retired Rabbi Elio Toaff, who served as Rome’s chief rabbi from 1950 to 2001: “I want to join those who rejoice with you over the gifts that the Almighty’s mercy has lavished on you during a long and fruitful existence.” The pope’s personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, read the message on May 3 during a public celebration of the rabbi’s birthday attended by religious, civic, and government leaders.
Drawing on Psalm 23, the pope said the rabbi’s life story and work showed that God refreshed the rabbi’s soul, “guiding you along the right path, even in the darkest valley, at the hour of the persecution and extermination of the Jewish people.”
A couple of years ago, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibit titled “A Blessing to One Another,” showing John Paul’s relationship with the Jewish people from childhood onward. Echoing the same phrase, Benedict spoke at a synagogue in Cologne in 2005 about “blessed times” when Jews and Christians lived together in harmony, as well as mourning those times when they had not, including the expulsion of Jews from the city in the 14th century.
There can be “blessed times” of harmony and goodwill — and there could be more, with Jewish and Christian people working on issues of common concern and teaching new generations about things that all know are of central importance: marriage, family, the sanctity of life, honesty, kindness, courtesy.
The prayers that concluded the Jewish funeral service were beautiful, and were so like those that I had always been taught to use for the dead: “Master of mercy, cover him in the shelter of Your wings forever, and bind his soul into the gathering of life. It is the Lord who is his heritage. May he be at peace in his place of rest.”
Every funeral makes — and should make — us think about our own. We are, each of us, going to meet God. And the time to prepare is now — with a life of prayer, communicating with God, obeying His Commandments, seeking to live as He asks us to live, serving others, doing what is right. That is something that I quietly learned anew in that synagogue, and took away with me to ponder.