Good Friday Prayer for the Jews – A Controversial History and Theology

By now we are accustomed to the complaint that the millennial old Good Friday liturgy was “inherently anti-semitic.” This is commonly assumed by almost everyone since it is widely reported in newspapers and on television. Especially during the release of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the issue has become a hot topic. Catholics reacted so as to distance themselves from the label of anti-semitism and from accusations that the ancient Latin Good Friday liturgy incited hate-crimes against European Jews.
Well-meaning Catholics, and I include myself, have thereby received a version of an unfortunate liturgical history which asserts the following:
Our Catholic forebears prayed anti-semitic prayers before the altar of God for centuries. We contemporary Catholics have remedied the situation. 
…but is it really true that our Catholic forbears prayed sinful or imprudent liturgical prayers?
St Bernard, St Francis, St Clare, St Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure, St Catherine of Sienna, St Pius V, St Francis de Sales, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross (himself an ethnic Jew), St Alphonsus Liguori, and, yes, even St Therese de Lisieux the Little Flower, lisped these allegedly hateful and anti-semitic prayers to God.
I myself once believed this version of history. If you have a copy of my book The Crucified Rabbi, it ends with the “revised Good Friday prayer” for the Jews. I put that in there because I wanted to be careful not to offend Jewish readers. Having never examined the topic, I assumed like everyone else that the older prayers were bad and that the new prayers were good. However, I’ve been looking over the texts and have noticed a few notable features that are often ignored or misunderstood in this debate over the Jews and Good Friday.
Let me also preface this discussion that like Christ, Mary, and the Apostles, I have a fond love for the people of Israel – those children descended from Abraham. I’ve written a book on the subject and I have always attempted to present a very balanced and careful account. Please done accuse me of anti-semitism. 
All that being said, I have no doubt that some will fling the “a-word” (anti-semitism) toward me, simply because I suggest reinvestigating the older Good Friday prayers for the conversion of the Jews. So be it. I maintain friendships with dozens of ethnic Jews (those who follow Christ and those who don’t), and have only love in my heart for the Jewish people.
My recent concern centers on what might be a lack of charity in our generation when we so readily accuse saints, popes, bishops, priests, and laity for over a thousand years of praying “anti-semitic” prayers at the altar of God. Do we really want to accuse our forebears of racism and anti-semitism? I don’t. I’m not ready to say that Saint Francis and Saint Therese were even the least bit anti-semitic for participating in the old Good Friday Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews. Therefore, I think we need to rethink the issue and reexamine the prayers from a theological point of view.

So before anyone picks up stones, rolls out the guillotine, or accuses anyone of the “a-word,” let’s make a careful examination of the theology behind the Good Friday prayers for the Jews.
Why is the Good Friday Prayer Considered “Anti-Semitic”?
Those who allege that the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews (henceforth as GFPJ) is “anti-semitic” give three reasons for their argument:
  1. The ancient introduction to the prayer refers to the Jews as “perfidious Jews” {perfidis Judaeis}. The prayer itself also speaks of the “faithlessness of the Jews” {Judaicam perfidiam}. Let it be known that in Latin, perfidia means “faithless.” Unfortunately, in English “perfidious” usually means “treacherous.”
  2. The ancient prayer speaks of a “veil over the hearts” of those adhering to the synagogue.
  3. The ancient prayer refers to the “blindness” {caecatione} of the Jews and prays that through “Christ they may be delivered from their darkness {a suis tenebris}.”
For these three reasons (perfidy, veiled hearts, and blindness), the ancient Latin GFPJ is condemned as anti-semitic. However, we should note that the reason for the prayer is that, and I quote, “they might recognize the light of thy truth, who is Christ.”
History of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews
The Good Friday Prayer for the Jews (GFPJ) exists in five versions:
  1. Old Latin version (the one discussed above)
  2. 1955 version (Revised Holy Week under Pope Pius XII)
  3. 1960 version (Pope John XXIII)
  4. 1970 version (Pope Paul VI – Novus Ordo)
  5. 2008 supplement to 1960 version (Benedict XVI’s replacement version for those using the 1962 Missale)
The 2008 version is a replacement GFPJ for the 1960 GFPJ since there was a worry that the 1960 GFPJ was still too offensive.
Before we get into all that, here are the texts of the ancient GFPJs:
Old Latin GFPJ
Let us pray also for the faithless Jews {perfidis Judaeis}: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.
Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness {Judaicam perfidiam}: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1955 GFPJ (same text but with kneeling introduced)
Here, the same introduction and prayer are said, but kneeling was added so that the prayer conformed to the other surrounding prayers.
1960 GFPJ (same prayer, but deletes “perfidis” and “perfidiam”)
Let us pray also for the {perfidis} Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. Arise.
Almighty and eternal God, who dost also not exclude from thy mercy the Jews {Judaicam perfidiam}, hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1970 GFPJ (revised to exclude “perfidy, veiled hearts, and blindness”)
Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. (Prayer in silence. Then the priest says:)
Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
2008 Supplement GFJP for those using the 1962 Latin Rites (like 1970 Novus Ordo, revised to exclude “perfidy, veiled hearts, and blindness”)
Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men. (Let us pray. Kneel. Rise.)
Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Is the Old GFPJ Offensive and Should This Matter?
By comparing the older versions to the 1970 and 2008 Supplement, we find that the GFPJ is changed so as to exclude the concepts of “perfidy, veiled hearts, and blindness.”
We can understand how these ideas are offensive. As stated above, the word “perfidy” in English (and I assume other languages), has taken on the meaning of “treacherous.” Surely we don’t believe that our Jewish neighbors are sneaking around our backyards ready to attack us. Nor do we believe that they are plotting against us.
However, it is obvious to everyone that Jews do not believe the Catholic Faith, and nobody holds that Jews have faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is a fact confessed by Christians and Jews alike: Jews in the synagogue don’t believe in Jesus Christ. They do not have the gift of supernatural faith. Therefore, Catholics acknowledge that the those in the synagogue do not have the Catholic Faith and so they pray that they will have faith in Christ. If the Jews of the synagogue had faith in Christ, then we wouldn’t be praying for them in the first place.
With regard to the idea of “veiling,” nobody wants to be thought of as having a “veiled heart” or as dwelling in “darkness.” I can never imagine walking up to a Jewish acquaintance at a cocktail party and saying, “So, how is like living in blindness and darkness?” So, of course, we can readily grant that these descriptions are offensive.
But here’s the rub. If we are worried about our Catholic Faith being “offensive” then we’ll have to do MUCH more than simply change the Good Friday liturgy. We’d have to back down on naming abortion as “murder.” We’d have to erase that uncomfortable truth about the existence of Hell. We would have to also revise the First Commandment prohibition against “idols” so as to not offend our Hindu neighbors. Then, we’d have to revise our doctrine of matrimony, since this also offends those of different orientations. Our basic claim that “God has a Son, Jesus Christ,” is entirely offensive to Muslims – as they have often explained to me. So shall we also revise this? And my Protestant friends are offended that they cannot receive Holy Communion at Mass and they are also offended by Marian devotions and Marian statues. Should we revise these features of the Catholic dogma, liturgy, and devotion? If we do, there will be nothing left.
The fact is, Catholic liturgy will offend those who are not Catholic. Period. Close the book. That non-Catholics are offended by Catholicism should not be surprising. Saint Paul said it best when he wrote, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23). So “offensiveness” does not amount to hate-crimes, racism, or even “anti-semitism.”
A Theological Analysis of the GFPJ
So then, do these three descriptions (perfidy, veiled hearts, blindness) accurately apply to those who adhere to Rabbinical Judaism and who are not Catholics?
Saint Paul writes the following and it should be the go-to text for these discussions:

And not as Moses put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel might not steadfastly look on the face of that which is made void. But their senses were made dull. For, until this present day, the selfsame veil, in the reading of the old testament, remaineth not taken away (because in Christ it is made void). But even until this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. But when they shall be converted to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. (2 Corinthians 3:13–17, D-R)

What do we learn here from the Apostle Paul? Three things:
  1. The children of Israel have been made “dull” in some way.
  2. A “veil is placed over their hearts” whenever the Old Testament is read by them. 
  3. They shall be “converted” – not be observing the Old Testament, but by turning to Christ and by receiving the Spirit of liberty.

The older Good Friday prayers express all three truths. If these three truths are offensive, sinful, and/or anti-semitic, then we should also purge 2 Cor 3:13-17 from our Bibles. Where would it stop?
Conclusion
The purpose of this post is to encourage three actions points:
  1. Reinvestigate the theological reasons for the old Good Friday prayers.
  2. Bury the liturgical myth that Catholic Saints before the 1900s were praying anti-semitic prayers.
  3. Stir up discussions about the salvation of the Jews as Catholics, as the Fathers and Saint Thomas Aquinas teach. The Jews, they say, will all become Catholic during the Apocalypse.
I look forward to your comments, but on a subject this controversial, please follow this rule for posting comments:
  1. Pray a Hail Mary before you post in order to have a right intention in union with God’s will.
  2. Don’t accuse people on the internet (whom you’ve never met) of anything pejorative. I’ll delete offensive comments right away.
A blessed Triduum to you. Christus passus sub Pontio Pilato.

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