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From enemy to brother

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: News


Father Walter Cuenin, the Brandeis Catholic chaplain, attended a conference earlier this month that addressed the revolution in Catholic discussion of Jews. The conference, titled, “From Enemy to Brother: What Changed?” celebrated the publication of the book, “From Enemy To Brother” by John Connelly, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and featured Jewish studies scholar Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Sponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York, the conference focused on Connelly’s writings about the Catholic Church’s acceptance of Jews and official rejection of the idea that Jews were responsible for the killing of Christ. This doctrine was officially passed by the Vatican in 1965 and revolutionized the way of thinking for a people who had long been taught to view Jews as enemies. The doctrine established a much-needed brotherhood between Jews and Catholics following the Holocaust, when millions of Jews experienced violent anti-Semitism and brutality that was largely supported by the Catholic Church.

“After the Holocaust, the Church became more aware of its responsibility for the Holocaust itself. The Church was behind the teaching of hatred for Jews,” Cuenin said. “This doctrine repudiated the teaching that Jews were responsible for the killing of Christ, the teaching that was frequently used during Nazi period. We now believe that Jews don’t have to be baptized to go to heaven, and that God works in all religions.”

According to Cuenin, he attended the conference in New York because he knows Susannah Heschel personally, and admires the teachings of her father. In addition, he spoke to attendees and was eager to meet other professors and people concerned with interfaith dialogue.

Cuenin also expressed the importance of interpreting sacred texts and scriptures in order to apply them to everyday life.

“In the religious world, the interpretation of sacred texts is a huge issue,” Cuenin said. “There are Christians who follow the scripture literally. If you don’t interpret scripture you get very negative stuff.”

As a Catholic chaplain at Brandeis, where at least half of the student population is Jewish, Cuenin plays a unique role among students and as a leader in the community. In addition to his role as the Catholic Chaplain on campus, Cuenin also coordinates the entire Brandeis Interfaith Chaplaincy.

“I need to be involved in the lives of Jewish students and students of all religions, too. I work with all kids; I don’t care what religion they are. At Brandeis we make a big effort to celebrate all religions. We want to be sensitive to Eastern religions as well as Western religions. Over the past few years, Brandeis has made a Muslim prayer space and a peace room for meditation,” Cuenin said.

Cuenin stressed that college is a time when many students explore their spirituality, and do not necessarily conform to traditional, organized religion. Cuenin is here to support all students in this respect.

Like Cuenin, there are several religious leaders that are part of the campus Chaplaincy who regularly demonstrate support for other religions. Together, they are Father Cuenin, Dr. Imam Talal Eid, the Muslim chaplain, Matt Carriker, the Protestant chaplain and Rabbi Elyse Winick, the Jewish chaplain. Like the chaplains on campus, President Lawrence, an observant Jew, attends Catholic services just as Cuenin, an observant Catholic, attends Muslim services. And at Brandeis’ graduation ceremony each year, the four chaplains perform a prayer together, each contributing a brief thought.

“University leaders attending one another’s services is a visual symbol of what Brandeis stands for,” Cuenin said.

The conference this past week about Connelly’s book, according to Cuenin, shows that the Catholic Church can change. Within the past century alone, the Catholic Church recognized Jews as religious brothers, and recognized freedom of religion for all people. As is evident, the Catholic Church, widely regarded as conservative and hard to change, is indeed capable of slow progress.