Shortly before his untimely death in 1904, Theodor Herzl was received by Pope Pius X. The former wanted to enlist the Catholic Church's supoport for the re-establishment of the Jewish people's independence in its ancestral homeland. However, Herzl records in his diaries that Pius's response was far from supportive.
The Pope told him he could not recognise the Jewish people as such because "the Jews have not recognised our Lord". The Pope declared "we cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it. If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, our churches and priests will be ready to baptise all of you".
Now Pius wasn't particularly hostile towards Jews, he was simply expressing the normative Christian approach toward Jews articulated in the first century of the Christian era, namely that the expulsion of the Jews from their land was proof of Divine rejection. The Church was now the new and true Israel, having replaced the old one - the Jewish people. This attitude that we refer to today as "the teaching of contempt" towards Jews and Judaism provided theological justification for Jewish homelessness and marginalisation. Accordingly, the idea of the return of the Jewish people to assume sovereignty in its ancestral homeland was anathema to most Christians down the ages and Pope Pius X was simply articulating this to the unfortunate Herzl.
While Nazi ideology was very much secular and pagan, the "Final Solution" regarding the Jews was implemented by mostly baptised Christians in ostensibly Christian lands. Thus as devastating as the Shoah was for Jewry, its implications and ramifications for Christianity were profound. However, among the notable Christian heroes who stood out as exceptions in these horrific times was Angelo Roncalli, the Papal representative in Turkey and one of the earliest western religious figures to receive information on the Nazi murder machine. He helped save thousands of Jews and was deeply moved by the plight of Jews. In 1958, after the demise of Pope Pius XII, Roncalli was elected as the new pontiff, taking the name John XXIII, and announced his attention to review the Church's teaching regarding Jews and Judaism.
In June 1960 at a momentous meeting between the Pope and the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, the latter presented his documentation of the history of the Christian "teaching of contempt" towards Jewry, pleading for the matter to be rectified. He received an attentive ear and recorded having asked the Pope at the end of the meeting if he may "carry away a bit of hope", to which John XXIII replied "you have a right to more than hope".
The awful effects of the Shoah on many Christians were profound
The Pope entrusted Cardinal Augustin Bea with the task of bringing a text to the Ecumenical Council improving the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People - a process that went through rather a difficult journey. Pope John XXIII did not live to see its fulfilment, but almost exactly 50 years ago under the authority of Pope Paul VI the document on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions - known by its opening Latin words "Nostra Aetate" ("In our time") - was promulgated. Section four of the text dealing with the relationship with the Jewish People, admonishes against portraying the Jews as rejected by God and as collectively guilty for the death of Jesus. It furthermore affirms the unbroken and eternal Covenant between God and the Jewish people and in so doing, Nostra Aetate eliminated in one stroke any theological objections to the idea of the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland and to sovereignty within it. The document categorically condemned antisemitism; and it called for "fraternal dialogue and biblical studies" between Christians and Jews.
While it took another 28 years before full diplomatic relations were established between the Holy See and Israel, this delay had more to do with politics than with religion. Above all, since Nostra Aetate, Catholic-Jewish relations have flourished, and in the US numerous centres for Christian-Jewish studies have been established. The revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations is a wondrous achievement in itself. However it says something even more universal about relationships between religious communities.
If a religion can go from seeing another community as contemptible and condemnable, to respected and beloved; if it can transform the most negative view of another religion to arguably the most positive, then surely it serves as a model for humanity at large, declaring that no chronic neuralgic relationship is beyond transformation.
Today there are relationships plagued by politics - one thinks of Jewish- Muslim relations that are inevitably affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However Islam had never denigrated Judaism in the way that Christianity had.
Everywhere, religious communities can overcome negative images of the other through positive engagement and purify themselves of prejudice and contribute to the wellbeing of society at large.