Two Challenges from the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion

by Bernadette Gasslein

Two things struck me this morning as I participated in the Celebration of Lord’s Passion.

In past years, the communities where I have participated, even where they use the 2009 version of the Canadian Lectionary, have always kept what our earlier lectionary used, “the Jewish authorities,” rather than “the Jews,” (2009) in passages such as “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews [Jewish authorities].” I know that the Canadian bishops worked very hard to retain “the Jewish authorities” in such passages, but Rome did not permit them to do so.

This morning, to hear that phrase recurring was a lesson in how antisemitism is communicated. If we hear the same thing often enough, and no one catechizes/instructs/challenges the message, it becomes ingrained in our subconscious.

In our world where genocide roams once more, and where even high-placed officials seem ignorant of the rudimentary facts of the Holocaust, this language strikes me as humanly, politically and spiritually dangerous. Words shape reality – and this shaping is distorted. In a world increasingly fraught by violence and hatred towards the “other,” we need to heed the insights of our best scripture scholars who have taught us that it was not the “Jews”, but the “Jewish authorities” who conspired in the death of Jesus – which was not for “many” but for “all.”

The second thing that struck me is the absence, in the Solemn Intercessions, of two prayers: one for the Muslim people, and one for peace.

Perhaps the Muslim people are considered to fall under “those who do not believe in Christ,” but in a world where Christians, Muslims, and other adherents of minority religions are being martyred by ISIS, I believe we need to expand this repertoire of prayers. The Roman Missal (n 13, Friday of the Passion of the Lord) foresees the possibility. I think it is time that we petition our diocesan bishops for prayers that address these “situations of grave public need.” I propose the following.

Let us pray for the Muslim people,
who with us call themselves
children of God’s covenant
with Abraham,
and who also adore the one merciful God.
For the sake of your Son, we pray:

Priest: Holy and mighty God,
the children of your covenant
are more numerous that the grains of sand.
Grant to all who share faith in you,
the merciful judge of all humanity,
to live in peace and tranquility.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

And, this year, in the shadow of the dropping of the world’s largest conventional weapon earlier this week, and nuclear posturing between North Korea and the US, I ache for a more explicit cry for peace. (Ironic how every year there seems to be an event that cries to heaven for the shalom of the kingdom just around Good Friday):

Let us pray for all those brutalized by war
and stalked by famine,
that they may know
the dawn of your peace and justice
in their lives.
For the sake of your Son, we pray:

Presider: We veil our faces before your glory,
O Holy, Immortal One,
and before the cross of your wounded Christ,
we bow low.
With the angels and archangels,
we praise you, our Mercy;
we bless you, our Compassion,
for in our brokenness
you have not abandoned us.
Hear us as we pray through Jesus,
our high priest:
heal all division, reconcile all that is estranged,
console all suffering and raise up to new life
all that is bound by death.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

(I composed this prayer many years ago for Revised Common Lectionary Prayers [Fortress Press, 2002], 100.)

Bernadette Gasslein is editor of Worship journal.


  1. Agreed Bernadette. It is why i advocate for inculturation in every diocese. Eucharist is not Mc Donald’s; incorporate the meaning inherent in your locale. That is how the written Word is incarnated in light of the times.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! The removal of the term “the Jewish authorities” from the Canadian lectionary showed a huge lack of understanding of the power of language on the part of Rome. And the prayers composed by Bernadette are a wonderful example of how all the prayers in the Roman Missal should be composed.

  3. Just curious, but did you mean to infer that you had celebrated the Solemn Veneration of the Cross in the morning? I know that it is most commonly celebrated in the early evening to accommodate the majority of faithful who must work during the day, but may also be celebrated in the afternoon in communities where there may be many elderly people who can’t get out in the evening, but have never heard of celebrating it in the morning on Good Friday.
    As for the prayers of intercession, I only read “Jews” in the few places where it is clear from the context that this is not a pejorative term. Too little has been said in most quarters about the contribution of the Fourth Gospel to a climate of antisemitism which brought such great harm and destruction to the many Jewish people whose only offense was to not know enough about Jesus to recognize him as God’s promised one. There are plenty of us whose education in the scriptures provides us with a more than adequate basis to substitute Jewish authorities when the context clearly warrants it. But the lectionary translation we have labored under for so long has so many serious flaws as to warrant a discussion in and of itself.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Here in my archdiocese there are many parishes where, to accommodate large numbers, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion is offered twice on Good Friday: Once at 11:00 a.m. and a second time at 3:00 p.m. I belong to a twinned parish where the Lord’s Passion is celebrated at 11:00 in one parish, and 3:00 in the other. A number of other parishes repeat it twice at the same times.

      I should add that here in Canada Good Friday is a stat holiday for many, if not most, people. I understand that is not the case in the United States, which would explain why people would gather in the evening after work.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thank you for linking Prof. Levine’s thought-provoking article. I found these words particularly striking: “Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.”
      It is hard not to share the grave concern that our sacred texts may promote anti-Semitic (and therefore anti-Christian) attitudes in hearers. But it also gives one pause to wonder where a process of “correction” would stop.

      1. @Paul Chandler:
        “But it also gives one pause to wonder where a process of “correction” would stop.”
        Exactly–I’ve been waiting for the Exodus reading from the Paschal Vigil to be corrected to so that it would be kinder to the Egyptians. Our choir sings the incredibly beautiful Victoria setting of the Reproaches every year during the veneration of the Cross. And every year, we have the following printed in the leaflet right before it. “During the Veneration, the choir sings the Improperia. It is important to understand that those texts are directed toward the whole of humanity rather than being directed at any one people; they are reproaching the faithlessness of the Church and all humanity.”
        If something like that was in every leaflet, or bulletin, there would be no need to “correct” the Gospel texts. And besides, it’s not the people who are in Church that need to hear the message that it was not the Gospel’s call for anti-Semitic behavior.

  4. “A timely commentary on fixing Scriptures: ”

    KLS – many thanks for that article.

    I don’t know that “Jewish authorities” is much better than “Jews”. I suspect either translation will have the same effect on people who are inclined to hate Jews already.

    FWIW, I live in an area (Northwest suburbs of Chicago) with a large Jewish population. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any of our preachers address this problem in the biblical texts. Perhaps it’s time to rectify that.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Is there evidence that the failure to address it has given rise to anti-Semitism among the parishes in your area?

      Now, there was a time within living memory where Good Friday was an occasion in certain places (Net Hentoff’s famously recounts this from his childhood near the border between the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods in Boston in the pre-WW2 era) where Catholic boys (Irish) used the day as a pretext for violent tribal identity reinforcement, as it were. Though I doubt many of them could fluently translate from the Vulgate as proclaimed in the morning Mass of the Presanctified. More likely had to do with opportunism, and somewhat less with some preachers.

      LIturgy folks have questionable assumptions about the directness of cause and effect, often for worthy reasons, but the nature of assumptions is that they are often invisible or inchoate.

  5. “Is there evidence that the failure to address it has given rise to anti-Semitism among the parishes in your area?”

    Right – I can’t point to any evidence, or even an anecdote. I agree with you that it’s difficult/impossible to draw a straight line between what is prayed in the liturgy and what is happening in the world.

    Our parish is pretty average-sized for around here, but is larger than a typical American parish – about 3,000 registered families. It’s a vast hodge-podge of different ages, backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, etc. I’d expect that our people are all over the map with regard to Catholicism and Judaism, and to the presence of Jews in the community. It might be opportune to provide a bit of a level-set (as we say in the business world) regarding what the church teaches now, particularly as the formal religious education for some of our parishioners ended before Vatican II began, and reflect a bit on some of the continuing anti-Semitism in the world. Just a thought.

  6. The Church has to ask the question if it has added to anti Semitic sentiment especially with in its Holy Week prayers and acclamations. If it has then seek to right the wrong. That move was found in the heart of John XXIII.

    If Churches across the country have the people proclaiming “Crucify Him” as part of their “part” in the Gospel reading, who knows what seeds get planted.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      But the people are not supposed to be proclaiming that. The 1988 Circular letter euthanized that practice (missalette publishers appear to have ignored this, but it’s actually no longer envisioned that the people partake of the proclamation of the passion). The passion is to be read by lectors and the priest.

      The Church in its OF form of liturgy has changed its prayers.

      And what evidence of actual seeds being currently planted is there? So far, merely surmise.

  7. If, as I was taught, that Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, death and subsequent resurrection were necessary for humanity to achieve salvation, why would any Catholic or Christian blame/despise/hate the Jews or Jewish authorities at all. Without their part in salvation history there would be no salvation.

  8. If the Gospel text says “Jews” it’s not up to a translator to render it “the Jewish authorities”. Translate God’s Word as written, leave out including an interpretation (even a correct one) out of the translated text. A similar tendency is atbplay in wanting to render “pro multis” “for all”, when “for all” in Latin would be “pro omnibus”.

  9. Nothing quite like Catholic fundamentalism with regard to “saying the black” and “doing the red”. There are parts of the gospel where references to “the Jews” is merely descriptive, but there are other parts, especially in John, where it seems clear that the church’s understanding of the death of Jesus was still undergoing development. For John to include the words “let his blood be upon us and upon our children” allows people to shift the blame for Christ’s death away from our sins and towards “the Jews” as the real culprits. There were Jewish leaders who were behind the kangaroo court at the Sanhedrin and at the Praetorium. To cite that is historically accurate. The lectionary is badly in need of re-translation. To believe that it’s every jot and tittle must be carefully adhered to is questionable at best. There are many passages from Paul which contain paragraph length sentences with dangling pronouns that beg very slight amendments for purposes of clarity. The people have a right to not only hear the Word of God, but to hear it proclaimed with comprehension and clarity. Isn’t that why we have a children’s lectionary? Do you suppose that at Masses where sign language is employed for the deaf that those signs translate the passage word for word?
    As for “pro multis”, perhaps Jay hadn’t heard that when this change was imposed we were told to be sure the people understood that “many” actually means “all”. That Jesus died for all and not just for many. Why not just say “all” since that is what the Pope says when he celebrates in Italian.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Here’s the thing, though: fundamentalism, rigidty, legalism and rubricism are no less easily found when moving past the ritual texts. It’s an illusion to imagine otherwise. You may not notice them if you are in charge of what is changed. But they can still be there no less, just that others will notice them and not bother to tell you.

    2. @Fr. Jack Feehily:

      “May His blood be upon us and our children” is in Matthew, not John, and we do not need to “retranslate” the Lectionary to remove parts some find politically incorrect. Sanitizing the Gospels of that which offends modern ears can become a fundamentalism of its own. If the Gospel cannot be proclaimed in its fullness in Church, at Mass, including this verse, we have a problem with being ashamed of the Gospel. The folks in the Scripture make this statement as a proxy for humanity.

      Don’t get me started on the children’s Lectionary…don’t tell me that my godchild who takes like fish to water things like smartphones needs a dumbed down Lectionary that uses “friends” for “disciples” because “disciples” is supposedly too hard a word for her to understand.

      Why not say, “for many” since the official Latin from which all Roman rite translations are derive says “pro multis” and not “pro omnibus”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *