August 3, 2006 – New York – The American Jewish Committee mourns the passing of Dutch Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, one of the leading architects of the positive revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations. He was 96 years old.
“Under Cardinal Willebrands’ leadership the Catholic-Jewish relationship was institutionalized in a way we take for granted today,” said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious relations. “He was the captain of the Catholic-Jewish ship and steered its significant voyage in the transition from the pontificate of Paul VI to the remarkable pontification of John Paul II.”
AJC worked closely with Cardinal Willebrands in the years leading up to the landmark 1965 Catholic declaration, Nostra Aetate, which fundamentally changed Catholic teachings about and dealings with the Jewish people.
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who at the time was head of AJC’s interreligious affairs department, was central to those interactions. In 1963, Cardinal Willebrands visited AJC headquarters in New York to meet with Rabbi Tanenbaum. “The Jewish people preserve special values, very important and precious and they are of permanent meaning,” Cardinal Willebrands told Rabbi Tanenbaum. “The Jewish people and Judaism have a permanent mission in the world, and we must work together side-by-side to serve God’s people.”
Both before and after Nostra Aetate, Cardinal Willebrands was instrumental in fostering improved relations with Jewish leaders, and met regularly with AJC at the Vatican. In 1974, he was appointed the first president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and in that capacity continued to interact with AJC’s interreligious leadership.
“With Cardinal Willebrands’ death, we are witnessing the passing of the pioneering generation of Catholic leaders who broke new ground with Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate. They led the enduring and significant follow-up in positive relations with the Jewish people, as well as the establishment of Vatican diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Rabbi James Rudin, AJC’s senior intereligious affairs adviser, and former director of the department.