Print Friendly, PDF & Email

d. The following article appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #71 Summer 2000, pp. 18-20. This article is part of the spiritual exercises preached in the presence of Pope John Paul II from Feb. 25 to Feb. 30, 1996. It is taken from Loving the Church, by Christoph Schönborn and translated by John Saward, pgs 88-97; ©1998 Ignatius Press; Reprinted with permission. Note: all italics are as they appear in the book.

The Church – Prepared for in the Old Covenant

by Christoph Schönborn

Second Day – Fourth Meditation
The Old Covenant

We are entering upon holy ground (cf. Ex 3:5). The question of the significance of Israel and the Old Covenant, of the Torah and the promises, for our understanding of the Church takes us to the heart, the center of the mystery of the Church. What is the significance of the Old Covenant for the Church? What does the Council mean when it says that the Church was “prepared in marvellous fashion (mirabiliter) in the history of the people of Israel and the Old Covenant”?1 With the coming of Christ, is Israel’s role over and done with? Or is it still in some mysterious way a preparation for the Church? Does it have a significance “only” in this preparation and not in its own right? These questions are in no way mere theological tomfoolery, academic shadowboxing. They are burning questions for Israel and for the Church, questions weighed down with the oppressive burden of history. The wounds of our century are too deep, the load of guilt too great, for these questions to be discussed at a tranquil, neutral distance.

The questions we have posed are even weightier here in Rome, where Peter and Paul, Jews in the Jewish community of Rome, did their work as apostles of the Lord. Paul wrote pages to Rome that deal with the mystery of Israel and the Church in a way that no one else has ever done. I am thinking of chapters 9 to 11 of his epistle “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, whose “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:7-8).

There is so much that could be said about the history of the Jews in Christianized Rome. There are shadows as well as light in this heavy-laden history. Take, for example, Pope Anacletus II, who descended from the Jewish Pierleoni family and has entered into history as just an anti-pope. In 1930 Gertrud von Le Fort devoted a whole novel to him. The Pope from the Ghetto is one of the most profound things ever written in this bloody century about the mystery of Israel and the Church. We should also mention Pope Pius XII and everything that much-maligned man did for the Jews. I can never go past the Great Synagogue without thinking of Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome. On Yom Kippur 1944, as he stood before the shrine of the Torah, Christ the Lord appeared to him and his wife, and at his baptism, out of gratitude to Pope Pacelli (Pius XII), took the baptismal name Eugenio. And how can we forget the memorable visit of the Holy Father to the same Great Synagogue on April 13, 1986? When we tread upon this holy ground, we are not just touching the mystery of Christ, Israel, and the Church; it surrounds us on all sides!

Let us begin our meditation with the passage in the Catechism that deals with the election of Israel: “In order to gather together scattered humanity God calls Abram from his country, his kindred, and his father’s house [cf. Gen 12:1], and makes him Abraham, that is, “the father of a multitude of nations” [Gen 17:5]. ‘In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ [Gen 12:3, LXX]” (CCC 59).

In the call of Abraham we see God’s great plan at work: to gather together all mankind to be his family. Where one man fell to the ruin of all, one man is to become a blessing for all: “The people descended from Abraham would be the trustees of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church. They would be the root onto which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe” (CCC 60). Then, a couple of paragraphs later: “After the patriarchs, God formed Israel as his people by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. He established with them the covenant of Mount Sinai and, through Moses, gave them his law so that they would recognize him and serve him as the one living and true God, the provident Father and just judge, and so that they would look for the promised Savior” (CCC 62). And finally: “Israel is the priestly people of God, ‘called by the name of the Lord’ [Dt 28:10], and ‘the first to hear the word of God’ [Roman Missal, Intercessions, Good Friday], the people of ‘elder brethren’ in the faith of Abraham” (CCC 63).

In the draft of the Catechism, the so-called Projet revise, which was sent to all the bishops for their assessment, the original text ran as follows: “Israel is not a nation, but the priestly people of God.” There was a storm of protest about this sentence, especially from Israel! It was a total misunderstanding! The sentence was misinterpreted as a statement by the Catholic Church about the present-day state of Israel. It was thought we were denying that Israel is a nation, a state among the states. In reality, this is a clear, positive affirmation about the election of Israel. It is not just one people among many, one nation among many, but God’s own Chosen People. Israel is not a people existing in its own right that God sought out among the other peoples and then blessed with special privileges. No, God himself is Israel’s Creator (cf. Is 43:15). It is he who made it his people. It has its existence through his choice.

But there is the rub. Is Israel ethnically a people, a race? That can hardly be maintained, now any more than in antiquity (cf. Acts 2:5-11). What gives Israel its identity is its priestly vocation to bless and to be a blessing: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Israel is above all an “assembly of people” before God, a qahal-the very reality that the Septuagint translates as ekklesia, Church. Of course, Israel is also a people in the sense of having a common family tree. They are the seed of Abraham, to this very day, but these descendants exist only because God himself gave them to Abraham, and because Abraham believed.

The very fact of Israel’s existence, beginning with Isaac and Jacob, is permanent proof of the incomprehensible faithfulness of God. Such a small people could not have such durability from its own resources, from its own merely ethnic identity: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Lk 1:54-55). This fidelity of God is not, of course, one-sided. It is in covenant with the faith and fidelity of Abraham: “[B]ecause you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore… and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:16-18).

No infidelity on the part of Israel, no sin of the people, not even the misjudgment and rejection of Jesus the Messiah, can ever destroy God’s fidelity to “Abraham and his posterity for ever”. And so Paul writes to the Christian community in Rome: “[A]s regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28-29). Twice Paul asks the question, and twice he gives the resounding reply: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!” (Rom 11:1, 11).

What does this mean for the Church? It opens up the need for a change of outlook, in fact, a change of heart. The indelible impression left by the Shoah, the Holocaust, teaches the same lesson. It makes us realize that the deadly hatred of Israel is also, deep down, aimed at the Church, in fact at the God of Israel himself, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is much that ought to be said here. Let me mention just three areas in which a change of outlook is necessary and indeed already, to some extent, taking place. The Catechism points the way forward.

1. We cannot find Christ when he is cut off from his roots. The Catechism shows this in its meditation on the Solemnity of the Epiphany (cf. CCC 528). The Wise Men from the East (cf. Mt 2:1-12) represent the “Church taken from the Gentiles”. They show the permanently valid way for the pagans to come to Christ, even in our own times.2 The Catechism says:

The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews [cf. Mt 2:2] shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be the king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs” [Leo the Great] and acquires Israelitica dignitas [Easter Vigil, Prayer after third reading] (CCC 528).

The first thing to be noted about this very dense text is this: the ancient promise, that the nations will come and worship God in Israel, on Mount Zion, is fulfilled. From the beginning, the mission of Jesus is shown to fulfill this promise. He fulfills it, not, of course, in the Temple, not on Mount Zion, but in his very person: “He has made … both one” (Eph 2:14). The pagan religions, the world’s religions, “can play the role of the star that puts men on the path, that leads them to search for the kingdom of God. The star of the religions points toward Jerusalem; it is extinguished and relit in the Word of God, in the Holy Scripture of Israel. The Word of God preserved in Scripture appears as the true star, which we cannot dispense with or ignore if we wish to reach the goal.”3

What does this mean? It means that the Gentiles, the nations and religions of the world, can only find Christ, and so can only become Church, when they enter into the promises of Israel, when the history of Israel becomes their history. “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). There is no access to Jesus, and therefore no entry to the People of God, without the acceptance by faith of the revelation of God that speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is and will always be God’s great catechesis in preparation for Christ. That is why the Old Testament cannot and must not be replaced by the writings of other religions. We must not try to solve the difficulties of the Old Testament by removing its readings from the liturgy but by learning to read and love and expound it in the light of Christ. A Carthusian lay brother once said to me: “The Old Testament is the love story of God.”4

2. The second point concerns this very question of the correct way of reading the Old Testament, in other words, the question of the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. The Catechism regards typology as a privileged expression of their unity. We are talking here, not about one exegetical method among many, but about a deeply theological view of salvation history. Typology is not a method of interpreting texts but a distinctive view of the events of salvation history. It derives from the fact that God’s saving plan is one. The events of the Old Testament foreshadow the events of the New Testament; they are “prefigurations of what [God] accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son” (CCC 128). Just as the ark saved Noah and his family, so even more does baptism save us now (cf. I Pet 3:21).

This does not devalue the Old Testament, as the Catechism insists time and again: “The calling of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt, for example, [do not] lose their own value in God’s plan, from the mere fact that they were intermediate stages” (CCC 130). No, “typology indicates the dynamic movement toward the fulfillment of the divine plan” (ibid.). But this also means that the church can never renounce the Old Testament. To do so would be to disown God himself, for he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a God of the living, not of the dead (cf. Mk 12:26-27).

3. One sore point is the relationship of law and gospel. If the Church is wonderfully prepared for in the Old Testament, in what sense does the law prepare for the gospel? By contrast to the widespread contemporary view that law and gospel are in opposition to each other, the Catechism sees them in a relationship of promise and fulfillment: “The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts” (CCC, 1968).

At this point, in line with the Catechism, which stands in the great Catholic tradition, we need to consider and reflect on why and how Jesus perfectly fulfills the law. The Jewish tradition has its own feast of “rejoicing in the Torah”. One takes the Torah under one’s arm, as if it were a bride, and dances with it in the synagogue.5 The reason why joy in the law of God is so great is that it springs from his very own will, from his heart. According to a Jewish tradition, it is the Torah that is the beginning in which God created heaven and earth. It is the plan of God’s heart, the plan by which he created the world, the plan that he revealed to his people. That is why there is no greater happiness than being totally faithful to God’s law. Jesus will even say that this fidelity is his “food” (Jn 4:34).

This is all just a hint, a sketch. We can grasp the heart of the matter if we go back to what we said earlier: the mysterious encounter of Israel Zolli with Jesus Christ in the Great Synagogue in Rome. It took place when the Rabbi was standing in front of the shrine of the Torah. Is not Christ “the fulfillment of the law”? Is he not “the beginning” in whom, through whom, for whom God created all things, and in whom God’s plan is carried out: the Church?

Opposite the Great Synagogue of Rome, in Lungotevere dei Pierleoni, stands a small church, San Gregorio. Above the entrance is an inscription in Hebrew and Latin. It calls the Jews to conversion. Here, for centuries (from the time of Pius V to Pius IX), sermons were given to which the Jews were obliged to listen. Is it not now a time of conversion for us? This church, at the entrance to the ghetto, bears witness to the long history of suffering of God’s beloved Chosen People. The Council said that the Church is “wonderfully prepared” (mirabiliter praeparata) in the Old Testament and in the history of the people of Israel. Perhaps today we realize more deeply that this remains valid, through the permanent presence of the people of Israel, until the Lord himself returns to perfect the Church.


1. LG 2; CCC 759

2. On what follows, see Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 73-96.

3. Ibid., 77.

4. Cf. J.M. Garrigues, Ce Dieu qui passe par les hommes: Conférences de Carême II (Paris, 1993), 98f.

5. Cf. Bella Chagall, Brennende Lichter (Hamburg: Rowohlt 1966).

Ed. We are grateful for the views expressed in this article. Cardinal Schönborn and Fr. Friedman come to similar conclusions regarding the identity of the People Israel.

The Cardinal writes: “What gives Israel its identity is its priestly vocation to bless and to be a blessing.”

Fr. Friedman adds: “The final aim of the Election is the vocation of Israel to bear collective witness to the Messiah.”(J.I., pg 83)

At the end of his article, Cardinal Schönborn confirms the “permanent presence of the People of Israel, until the Lord himself returns to perfect the Church.”

In anticipation of the Church’s examination of Fr. Friedman’s proposal, we would offer the thought that this “permanent presence” must apply not only to the People Israel outside the Church (i.e., the Jews), but also to those within the Church (i.e., Hebrew Catholics).

As God is faithful to His covenant, so must Israel be faithful to her vocation. The enduring vocation of Israel, therefore, must also be recognized, protected and nurtured within the Church.