REVIEW: Eugene Fisher recounts his important role as an interpreter of what might be termed “Vaticanese.” He helped many to understand the nuanced doctrinal statements and theological pronouncements emanating from the Holy See . . . This has been valuable, as the swirls and eddies of Vatican politics can be deeply wounding and confusing to the Jewish people . . . Fisher deals forthrightly with seemingly intractable issues. These include the controversy over the canonization of Edith Stein. She was born Jewish, and while she became a nun she was nonetheless murdered by the Nazis because of her Jewish origins. (Jews) saw the move as an attempt to appropriate the Shoah for Christianity. Fisher, however, claims that the inclusion of Edith Stein has provided an opportunity for Catholic teaching materials to “take up the issue of the Shoah and the death of the six million” (p. 68). The Auschwitz Convent controversy, similarly, evoked very different responses by Jews and Catholics because of their very different histories. The cross, Fisher sensitively notes, symbolizes resurrection for Christianity and persecution for Judaism. That nuns, even cloistered nuns such as the Carmelites at Auschwitz, were praying for the victims of National Socialism was deeply offensive to Jews, though it was intended as a mark of respect by the nuns. As Fisher recognizes, “The crisis was not over a physical building or a simple cross. It was over the two millennia of history and the meaning of the Shoah” (p. 71). I have a long personal connection with Fisher. He was my first interfaith dialogue partner at a small college in upstate New York over three decades ago. Because of his sophistication and fairness, some joked that one could see an exemplary model of dialogue if one could hear him talking to himself. — Alan Berger, Florida Atlantic University, writing in Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, SCJR 13, no. 1 (2018)
REVIEW: “A precious memoir by a man who has lived the life of dialogue in his professional and personal life. It is also the story of one of the great theological revolutions of our time—by a veteran insider—who tells the story personally and poignantly of how the Catholic Church has entered into genuine dialogue with leaders and followers of the Jewish religion in unprecedented ways. It is a remarkable story, well worth reading, of a life devoted to this movement by one of the most knowledgeable people on this topic.” — Ron Kronish, writing in Jewish-Christian Relations, for the International Council of Christians and Jews
REVIEW: “Since Vatican Council II (1965), the Vatican and Papacy relations with the Jewish People remain both the most familiar and the least understandable office of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. To understand the executive, legislative and judiciary underpinnings and to make them accessible to the educated public requires a certain amount of scholarly effort and public presence. For the better part of a biblical generation, long-time NAPH member, Dr. Eugene Fisher, has been one of the most articulate arrangers and presenters of the Catholic point of view of the Church’s doctrines and teachings on the Jews in the English-speaking world. Who, what, when, where and why are spelled out succinctly in Fisher’s reflective memoir on his personal (upbringing, education, family, retirement, and life after) and professional life as the first lay Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, tasked with the specific mandate of Jewish-Catholic relations (1975-2007). In 1981, Pope John Paul II named Fisher as a consultor to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and, in 1985, he was nominated to the International Vatican-Jewish Liaison Committee, to represent the Holy See. Hands on experience from his position as co-director of USCCB and Vatican consultor related to Jewish affairs preclude Fisher’s insider’s knowledge on Church-Jewish contact-conflict-conciliation. His chapters provide capsule-size entries on important events, ideologies and persons examined within Church teachings and against outside influences that clearly show the interweaving of the Vatican and Papacy with the course of its Jewish heritage and centuries old negative Jewish teachings. Of particular importance is the current papal policy on Church responsibility to rectify the sins of silence and participation related to the Shoah and proper acts of teshuvah to remember and respond. Sections on Edith Stein, Auschwitz Convent Controversy, and Mel Gibson’s Passion suggest this. Fisher’s doctorate work, printed work, and directives in how to teach and appreciate Judaism on its terms in Catholic settings and schools confirm this. Arguably, certain topics generate controversy (Pope Pius XII, Vatican on Zionism, Dominus Jesus etc.) but for the most part plausible evaluations are generally presented. In sum, a source of verified information on Vatican-Jewish matters as seen and experienced by a major observer can prove beneficial to student and scholar alike.” — Zev Garber, NAPH—National Association of Professors of Hebrew, writing in Iggeret 13 Fall 2018, No. 90
ABOUT THE BOOK
I believe that the sense of limitless horizons for human potential in classic science fiction, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, opened my mind at a young age to the “radical” idea that any system, seen from a wider perspective, can and should be changed for the better, an ideal that at its core is profoundly biblical.
The Bible is essentially “counter-cultural” in any given period of history. It measures the present always to the yardstick of human and, indeed, cosmic perfection of the End Time of universal justice, harmony, and peace. Such a concept is guaranteed to make the people of any generation open to its call to be restive and uncomfortable with human institutions in which they live and with which they interact, whether political or religious. I am obviously not alone in this.
I believe “thinking outside the box” is to some extent a characteristic of my generation, which came to age in the 1960s, however much life’s trials and challenges have forged and molded that instinct in diverse ways. — Eugene J. Fisher
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For the last 40 years, Dr. Eugene J. Fisher has been a visible and articulate presence in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Born in Grosse Point, Michigan, he studied at Sacred Heart Seminary during Vatican II. He earned an M.A. in Catholic theology at the University of Detroit in 1968, and went on to gain M.A. in Hebrew Studies from New York University in1971, and a Ph.D. in 1976. As he recalls, when he began at NYU, “I had stepped into a career in a field that did not even exist before the Second Vatican Council: Catholic-Jewish relations.” Fisher’s doctoral dissertation examined the presentation of Jews and Judaism in post-Vatican II Catholic religion textbooks. In 1977, he became the first lay Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations, a position that he held until 2007.
He has lectured throughout the world on a range of topics such as antisemitism, portrayals of Jews in theater and film, the Bible, liturgy, and catechesis. He has published some 30 books and monographs, and 300 articles in major religious journals, many into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish and German. Fisher was the principal contributor to several ground-breaking documents of the American bishops, including their 1988 statements “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching” and “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” He co-edited with the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki the definitive collection The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations: The Complete Texts 1979-2005.
Dr. Fisher has been a Consultor to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and a member of the International Vatican-Jewish Liaison Committee. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize by Israeli Jewish scholars. Since his retirement, he has served as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Saint Leo University, and he continues to work to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Dr. Fisher is married to Catherine, and they have a daughter, Sarah.
Huffington Post (Nov. 9, 2017)
By Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish
Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel
I was pleased to recently receive a review copy of a wonderful memoir by Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, entitled A Life in Dialogue: Building Bridges between Catholics and Jews (MR, MEDIA BOOKS, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA ). Since Fisher is one of the pioneers of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue during the past 50 years, I was delighted to read this book. I found it to be a particularly interesting and informative book by a person who has devoted most of his professional and personal life to dialogue, as have I…
… This is a precious memoir by a man who has lived the life of dialogue in his professional and personal life. It is also the story of one of the great theological revolutions of our time—by a veteran insider—who tells the story personally and poignantly of how the Catholic Church has entered into genuine dialogue with leaders and followers of the Jewish religion in unprecedented ways. It is a remarkable story, well worth reading, of a life devoted to this movement by one of the most knowledgeable people on this topic.
• • •
Amazon.com (Nov. 6, 2017)
By Dr. Cormac Brian O’Duffy
“A rabbi once asked his students if they loved him. They answered positively. He asked a second question: ‘Then, what hurts me?’ They responded, bewildered, ‘We do not know.’ ‘If you love me, ‘the Rabbi noted,’ you would know what hurts me.”
So describes Dr. Eugene Fisher in his memoir, “A Life in Dialogue: Building Bridges Between Catholics and Jews,” the reality of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries. Catholics can only have limited success in understanding Jews if they do not understand the ‘nature of trauma (as Fisher describes it) inflicted on Jews by Christians over the centuries, including at the time of the Shoah. Dr. Fisher’s highly readable memoir plots his own unlikely entrance into this ministry of inter-religious dialogue. He was raised in Grosse Point in Michigan in a very Catholic home of Irish and German background and claims an ancestral relation with the famed Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell. The author took the normal path in education through Catholic elementary and High School, graduating as valedictorian in his class. The family all hoped that Gene would follow a priestly vocation, and after school, he did indeed enter Sacred Heart Seminary and later St John’s Seminary. This was a time of civil unrest and change, and he got involved in the movements for Civil rights of the 60’s, having been excited by the Vatican 2 Documents, feeling that the church was a ‘community chosen by God to change history itself and to improve the lot of mankind’. In particular, he describes the Council’s statements on ecumenism and its relation to other faiths as ‘part of the fiber of my being.’
Despite gaining a great love for scripture, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, the seminary did not discern that he had a vocation to the priesthood and told him he needed to take a year off to discern his own call. This was truly a path of Providence – or serendipity as he states – as it led him finally to take his doctorate at the New York University’s institute for Jewish studies. Here, nearly all his fellow classmates and all his teachers were Jewish, and he recounts that the tone, style and content of the discussions were entirely Jewish’. He realized all previous study was only marginally useful for understanding how ‘Jews today read their Scriptures, understood their history and lived their tradition’.
This short memoir of just over a hundred pages is an excellent introduction to understand how relations between Catholicism and Judaism have developed over the last 50 years and Eugene’s pivotal role in them. I am honored that he too has been helping me to prepare a special celebration for Israel’s 70th Anniversary in 2018. He has proposed the words for a memorial we hope to unveil which symbolizes the ongoing reconciliation he has experienced between these faith communities. The words he suggests were those spoken by Pope Saint John XXII to a group of visiting Rabbis in the time before the Vatican Council, ‘I am Joseph, your brother’. –
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