Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Amid Clash, a Kaddish

As the firestorm over the de-excommunication of the SSPX bishops and the resulting blow to Catholic-Jewish relations continues, a key figure in the decades-long dialogue between the faiths has quietly passed to his rest.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who died Sunday at 78, served from 1973-2000 as director of Jewish-Catholic relations for the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. From 1978, he likewise taught Jewish studies at Long Island's formation house, Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington and, on the global level, played a lead role both in the community's dealings with the Latin American mega-conference, the CELAM, and with the Holy See.

In 2007, Pope Benedict named the rabbi a Knight of St Gregory the Great in appreciation of his efforts.

At news of Klenicki's death, his good friend Cardinal William Keeler, the retired archbishop of Baltimore who remains the US bishops' moderator of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, sent his sympathies and tribute to the rabbi's widow, Myra:

With great sadness I learned of the death of your beloved husband and my esteemed friend, Rabbi Leon Klenicki. This faithful son of Torah leaves behind more than thirty years of scholarship and leadership in interfaith relations. For the Catholic Church in the United States and Latin America, Leon was a pioneer in the promotion of a vision of Catholic-Jewish relations that drew inspiration from the Second Vatican Council and the vital streams of contemporary Jewish thought.

One can only look back on Leon's career with gratitude to God for the paths that he opened up for so many religious leaders committed to reversing centuries of estrangement between their own faith community and other traditions. His innovative lecture at the first continent-wide Latin American meeting of Catholics and Jews in 1968 elucidated, for the first time in that milieu, the practical and pastoral implications of Vatican's II renewed teaching on the Jewish people and Judaism, captured famously in the decree Nostra aetate. Later on, Leon labored as an advisor to Catholic educators, even while carrying on his other ample responsibilities for the Reform Jewish movement in the U.S. and for the Anti-Defamation League as its chief interreligious officer. In his vast body of writings, Leon identified the principles of a new methodology in the way Catholics speak of their "elder brothers and sisters in the faith" in both catechetical and homiletic contexts. As a teacher to Catholic seminarians, as a friend to bishops, priests, and lay scholars—and as a respectful critic of whatever he perceived as departing from the necessary agenda of advancing mutual respect and understanding between Jews and Christians—Leon was a prophetic voice in our dialogues.

I am thankful to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and to the Holy See for recognizing Leon's achievement in building relationships of esteem and collaboration between the faithful of the First Covenant and the faithful of the Church. In May, 2001, when Leon was honored by the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Relations with Judaism, I acknowledged publically that his numerous books and articles constitute "an extremely valuable resource for anyone who is in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations." More recently, when the present Pontiff made Leon a Papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, I recognized this distinction as an apt tribute to the life and service of one who has been a true bridge-builder between faiths.

As I said in my telephone call to you, when Leon and I flew back from Rome to the United States, he and I were united in reciting the Psalms of King David: I as a priest praying the Divine Office in Latin, which is largely made up of the Psalms, and he praying the Psalms in Hebrew, the sacred language of the First Covenant. To be sure, the two of us were united in a fraternal bond that is deep and abiding.

May the name of Rabbi Leon Klenicki be cherished by all who call upon the name of the Lord, and may his soul now rest in the arms of a loving God whom he served with such dedication and charity.