The Jews and the (readmitted) old liturgy

By Chris Ángel, Pray Tell editorial assistant.

Summary of: “Anti-Jewish Elements in the Extraordinary Form” by Rita Ferrone, Worship vol. 84, no. 6 (November 2010), 498-513.

When Summorum Pontificum was promulgated in 2007, many Roman Catholics and others became concerned with how the Tridentine rite liturgies present the Jewish people. While a lot of attention has focused on the Good Friday prayer “for the conversion of Jews,” for which Pope Benedict XVI has authorized a revision, there are many other texts with problematic portrayals of the Jewish people. Pray Tell contributor Rita Ferrone identifies such passages from the 1962 edition of the Breviary (the pre-Vatican II version of the Liturgy of the Hours, permitted by Summorum Pontificum) during Lent, Passiontide, and Holy Week in the forthcoming issue of Worship magazine.

In the weeks leading up to Easter, Matins in the Breviary contains many patristic readings about sin, repentance, and the Passion which refer to the Jews. As Ferrone notes, “these references are uniformly negative ones which portray the Jews as a faithless, sinful, greedy, and bloodthirsty people.”  One example among many: On Wednesday of the first week of Lent, the Matins reading begins: “The Jews have been declared guilty.” The reading from Ambrose’s commentary on Luke 11 emphasizes that sinners can repent. However, there is no mitigation of this opening claim. This reading also mentions that mercy is possible, “even for the Jews” – the Jews represent the outer limit of God’s mercy.  Ferrone also finds problematic passages in pre-Vatican II commentaries by Pius Parsch, whom she calls brilliant, but who is nonetheless “…part of a culture and thought world that condemned the Jews.”

The treatment of the Jews in Catholic liturgy is far more than a matter of political correctness. Ferrone includes a chilling litany, spanning centuries, of ways in which the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people was one of violence and persecution. During the Middle Ages, for example, violence against the Jews was especially prominent during Holy Week.  Theologian Gregory Baum writes that in some places Christians would humiliate Jews as part of the Holy Week liturgies. While allowing that the Church’s regard of the Jewish people is only one element in the historical persecution of the Jewish people, Ferrone notes, “religious portrayal of the Jews as wicked or as a reprobate people is not only abhorrent in itself, but also lends support to evil deeds that go far beyond the actions or intentions of the Church.”

Ferrone draws a sharp contrast between Pope Benedict’s XVI blithe denial that use of older liturgical rites could cause any sort of harm with the concerted efforts that went into improving Jewish-Catholic relations leading up to Vatican II. Defenders of Summorum Pontificum often note that Pope Benedict established the 1962 version of the rites, which already contained some improvements from earlier versions – for example, dropping the use of the word “perfidious” in relation to the Jews on Good Friday. However, these improvements were completed by 1959. Ferrone details the efforts of Jewish scholars and theologians from 1961, who asked the Pope and the Church to remove the anti-Jewish elements from Catholic liturgy. At Vatican II, their work was accepted. After the council, every problematic passage was dropped, and the reformed Liturgy of the Hours draws heavily from patristic authors but includes not a single passage that implicates or condemns the entire Jewish people.

Rita Ferrone’s article is a strong argument for a thorough review of all the liturgical texts of the extraordinary form – the Missal, Breviary, and Ritual – to revise or replace all texts that do not reflect the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on the Jewish people. She concludes, “It is irresponsible to promote the older forms while these problems remain unresolved… Anti-Jewish liturgical texts are unacceptable today, and will be a continuing source of confusion and embarrassment for the Church if the difficulties they present are not addressed in a straightforward and comprehensive manner.”

Chris Ángel is a masters student in liturgy at Saint John’s School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota.


  1. The reappropriation of the EF today does represent a great challenge in terms of our relationship with Judaism.

    One of my favorite portions of the old Office consists of the Lamentations of Holy Week. Beyond scripture itself, they have been the cause of some very beautiful music, e.g. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum Tuum.”

    I have kept them as part of my own prayer largely because I have reinterpreted them in terms of the sexual abuse crisis.

    Yet, even without Rita’s detailed analysis, it has been abundantly clear to me that throughout many centuries the Lamentations were likely interpreted by Christians as referring historically to the Jews, and particularly to their relationship to Jesus more than to Christians and our relationship to God.

    The problem is not confined to the EF. It is also a NT problem.

    In the OF some priests take particular care with the Passion narratives to either interpret Jews as referring to Jewish authorities (not the whole people), some go so far as to adding “authorities” in the Gospel narratives. It is something that needs far more than just brief catechesis

    The problem IMO is not simply one of a better understanding of Judaism, but also a better understanding of Christianity. I keep the Lamentations because they remind me that we as a people (as a church), not just individuals, need conversion.

  2. People who find it troubling that the Church might revisit these texts and decide to elide or suppress them should not be quick to draw the trigger on a Political Correctness accusation.

    The roots of the sensitivity are older than our era; we are just living in an era where they are being worked through more systematically.

    One might find constructive that the harsher sentiments of two sequences were edited by the Church. The more recent edit was the removal of “The truthful Mary is to be believed, rather than the lying crowd of the Jews” from the sequence for Easter in the Roman Missal (apparently, it survived in the Norbertine missal/use). The Christmas sequence in the Dominican missal/use, “Laetabundus,” contained this

    “O Isaiah sang of old,
    So the Synagogue doth hold,
    But the sunrise finds her cold
    Hard and blinded.

    Of her own she will not mark,
    Let her to the gentiles hark;
    For the Sybil’s verses dark
    Tell of these things.

    Make haste, O luckless one,
    Give ear to the saints bygone:
    Why perish utterly,
    O race undone? ”

    But this was ditched in the wake of Trent…yes, Trent.

  3. I would add that we cannot consider these texts in an ahistorical isolation: that is, we must consider how they will sound to people of today and tomorrow, given the history that has occurred. To try to ignore the occurrence of historical events like the Holocaust and the cooperation and even gleeful participation of many (not all) Christians in anti-Jewish hate in the erstwhile name of Christ is wrong in this context. God is timeless; humanity is not. And human texts are not. To treat liturgical texts as timeless is to ascribe to them divine qualities in error.

  4. Such a review would require a substantial amount of effort and expense. I cannot imagine that there is any body (C.D.W., C.D.F., U.S.C.C.B., etc.) that would be interested in taking this on at the present time, so I would tend to think that anything along these lines will have to be postponed until some point in the relatively distant future, irrespective of its merits.

    1. Does that mean we delay the implementation of SP until “some point in the relatively distant future”?

      Perhaps the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity should take on the task of reforming the 1962 Missal, with the help of their Jewish dialogue partners?

    2. You cant delay the implementation of something that has already begun implementation.

      The article notes that the issues are mostly with the Breviary – which isn’t what most Latin Mass communities do publicly on a regular basis anyway. It would seem that, at least practically speaking, there aren’t any real issues with allowing the Missal itself to be used as it is currently being used.

      I do think any problems found should be addressed. In light of historical events and wrongdoings, all forms of current liturgical texts should be looked at. I say this as someone who really loves the older form of Mass, but who wants to forge positive relations with Jews and other religious groups. The 1962 Missal is a living part of the Church, after all, and these sorts of discussions emphasize that.

      I hope that these issues are being brought up by the original author of the article and others out of genuine concern for Catholic/Jewish relations and not to merely find some “gotcha” to further a particular liturgical agenda.

      1. “The article notes that the issues are mostly with the Breviary – which isn’t what most Latin Mass communities do publicly on a regular basis anyway. It would seem that, at least practically speaking, there aren’t any real issues with allowing the Missal itself to be used as it is currently being used.”

        No, Jack, that’s not what it says. The article says the whole thing should be looked at carefully. I worked on the Breviary because it was easy to do a compact study and there were many egregious examples. Where such thinking exists in daily prayer, it’s only too likely it will be found elsewhere in the corpus of liturgical texts. Without further study, however, I wouldn’t like to say one way or the other.

      2. The article summary above really only refers to the Breviary (the Missal is lumped in with it in a couple places, but no examples are given). I hope you can see why I would think that was what your article primarily dealt with.

        I would agree that all texts should be looked at carefully revised, but the missal itself doesn’t seem to have any examples as glaring or shocking as the breviary, so its regular use would seem to pose no real danger to those who participate in it.

  5. Anti-Jewish elements are only one of the many deficiencies in the old Latin liturgy. All the bishops at Vatican II, but four, recognized the deficiencies and voted to eliminate them with the reformed rites. It should be no surprise that these deficiencies are not still there, with some of them magnified with the passage of time, e.g., anti-Jewish sentiments, exclusion of women, etc.
    Thanks for Rita’s calling attention to some of them.

  6. No, Jack, that’s not what it says. The article says the whole thing should be looked at carefully.


    I tend to think that the breviary contains the majority of the passages that might be considered inopportune. Next to something like, “Non dicant Judæi: Non occídimus Christum” it’s hardly worth arguing over “perfidious” in the Good Friday oration. Are there other parts of the missal that some might find objectionable on these grounds? It’s certainly possible, although none come to mind, which is certainly not the case with the texts of the breviary, where a number of examples could be produced fairly easily.

    As I said before, I can’t see the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, or any other organization, taking on what would be a massive amount of analysis, editing, typesetting, proofreading, and publishing, in order to eliminate the use of a handful of texts by a comparatively small number of Catholics. This does not mean that the implementation of Summorum Pontificum is likely to be delayed or rescinded; I think that it would be very difficult to do so at this point. If that is the motive behind what Mr Ángel has written, I suggest that he is setting himself up for a great deal of disappointment.

  7. Paul,

    It’s a question of principle. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The EF is not a sandbox for a few children to play in. It’s the liturgy. It’s the prayer of the Church whether a few pray it or many. I am taking the liturgy seriously on the very terms which the hierarchy proposes. By talking about “a few people” you are taking a pragmatic approach that ignores the doctrinal issue.

    For more than 40 years now the beliefs articulated by Nostra Aetate have been, supposedly, upheld consistently by the Church. Can we now afford to look the other way for an indefinite future as one of the forms of the Roman Rite flies in the face of what we Catholics have articulated as our beliefs about the Jewish people? I don’t think so.

    Not unless Nostra Aetate is on the way out too.

    There is no dearth of expertise or interest in Jewish-Catholic relations. There are battalions of scholars committed to dialogue. We are living in an age when editing and typesetting are done by individuals in their homes, for heaven’s sake. There is lots of money available for new missals, new textbooks, new guidelines, new hymnals, everything under the sun. The Church can certainly do something about this.


    Forgive me if I seemed to be chiding you for assumptions based on the summary above. I only wanted to take the opportunity to clarify what the article itself says, since I could speak to that question. Thanks for your response.

    1. Rita, hopefully raising this issue will bring about some changes. I’m not familiar with the EF breviary. I suspect it would be easier to make changes to it than to this form of the Mass, although Pope Benedict did tweak the Good Friday prayer but I don’t think that satisfied many. One option that those who love the EF Form of the Mass but have no ideological agenda to grind is to simply have the EF order of the Mass with all its rubrics using the Latin version of the 2002 MR for orations and prefaces. I don’t think, though, that those communities the pope wishes to reach and keep in the fold would appreciate my suggestion.

  8. The Church can certainly do something about this.

    I don’t doubt that it can; I do doubt that it will. Are you suggesting that the use of the Extraordinary Form should be curtailed until something is done?

    But, so as not to ignore the doctrinal issue, more interesting to me is the implied question of whether the Church formerly taught something as true which was, in fact, false. If what is taught in Nostra ætate is so at variance with what is expressed in, say, the readings of the second nocturn at Matins of Good Friday, to the extent that some liturgists would argue that their use should be suppressed, then doesn’t this imply that the Church formally taught false doctrine through the sacred liturgy? And is this not a source of concern on several levels?

  9. One of the hardest part of being a Christian, in my experience, is admitting that I was wrong. I think this is also very hard for the Catholic Church. But it is required by our Lord – with the promise that it is the way to new life and forgiveness. There are resources in our tradition which help us, but also some real obstacles in our tradition which make it difficult for us to follow Jesus on this point. Unfortunately, some of the resurgent conservatism in the Catholic Church seems to be digging up and retrieving precisely the parts of our tradition which are an obstacle.

  10. But what if this resurgent conservatism is the Church admitting that she was wrong? Is Fr Anthony prepared to concede that it might turn out that the Church will some day repudiate Nostra ætate, once again siding with Chrysostom, Augustine, and Luther on the question of Jewry, and that she would be right to do so?

    1. Well, if the Church did this re-tread, how would you be able to have much confidence that the Church is right? What kind of credible authority can’t make up its mind, and can be wrong for such a long period before self-correcting?

      Sure, it’s hypothetically possible that the Church repudiate Nostra aetate. The Church’s teachings have changed so much over the centuries, and there is so much clear contradiction, that this is not outside the realm of possibility. But the Church’s history of anti-Semitism and outright persecution of the Jews is so shameful that it would be a moral tragedy of mind-boggling proportions if the Church were to revert. Frankly, Paul, I’m apalled that you even suggest it.


      1. +JMJ+

        What kind of credible authority can’t make up its mind, and can be wrong for such a long period before self-correcting?

        Is that “long period” the centuries before Vatican II or the decades since it?

        And is it possible that, if the Church has been wrong about the Jews in the past… that she’s still wrong about them?

  11. So Paul Goings wants to go back to Luther’s ‘burn down their synagagogues’. However much we may criticize the Vatican, let us not forget that there are hordes of uneducated Catholics vigilantly keeping alive old, murderous prejudices and phobias.

  12. So Paul Goings wants to go back to Luther’s ‘burn down their synagagogues.’

    Did I suggest this? Really, Father, pull up your trousers, your bigotry is showing!

    My point was that Fr Anthony implies that there is an objective standard of morality which the Church was on the wrong side of previously, and on the right side of now. And from which there can be no going back. But this assumes that he have achieved a perfection of truth which has surpassed that of any other generation, and which itself will never be surpassed. It is another form of chronological snobbery that moderns have embraced uncritically since at lest the industrial revolution. Philosophically this has no firm foundation whatsoever, and this is why it is impossible to sort out the doctrinal controversies of our day, and hence also the moral controversies in any convincing way. The debate over the use of the Extraordinary Form is a mere symptom of this far-reaching problem.

  13. Paul, you’re overstating and misattributing. Nobody said what you accuse them of. Overblown language of “objective standard” and “perfection of truth” is not helpful. Why not just say (as Vatican II does, and as some Fathers said), that God is leading his Church and the Church is growing in knowledge? I doubt we’re at the “objective standard” of “perfection of truth” yet, or that we ever will be before the Second Coming. For the Church to go from persecuting and mistreating and disrespecting Jews to not doing so any more – this is progress, in my view. To go from a liturgy badly in need of reform to a reformed liturgy is also progress – but surely there will be many more reforms in future centuries. I don’t know why you put this in such a bad light – snobbery and all that. Every age does its best, according to its limited lights, and ours is no different. Our reforms and doctrinal refinements are our limited attempts to hear and respond to God. It’s not that sinister.

    Meanwhile, your globally dismissing pretty much everything and everyone involved in intellectual currents of the last 50 (or is it 150?) years comes off more snobbish to me than those you’re criticizing.


  14. This is from memory, so do pardon if this is ‘way off; but I recall that the Good Friday prayer for the Jewis in the General Intercessions of the EF prays for their conversion, even if they are no longer “perfidious.” The current Good Friday service prays simply that they will be brought to the fullness of salvation. Given not just Nostra Aetate, but Lumen Gentium as well, it is an open question whether or not actual conversion of the Jews is required for salvation. There is a very strong christological basis for the belief that, since God’s love is eternal and his salvific will is universal, God will find a way to include those whom religious authorities (those of any stripe; take your pick) are inclined to exclude. The Church can canonize saints, but on its good days, admits that it has no authority to declare with certainty who were among the damned.

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