One of the things I’ve most come to appreciate during my 5 ½ years as Archbishop of New York is just how seriously our Jewish neighbors approach their holy days. Traffic is lighter, things quiet down a bit in this hectic City, as the observance of these solemn days begin. Whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, or any religion – or no particular religion at all – this public observance of faith being lived out is a beautiful example that we can all admire. It is a joy and an honor for me to be able to offer my prayerful best wishes to all the Jewish family, as today they celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, followed by the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, and, finally, the Festival of Sukkot, the ever-timely reminder of God’s providence and care for His people.
We are fortunate that, here in New York, there exists such a warm and close relationship between the many different faith communities that call this City home. We saw that most recently when I was asked by Mayor DiBlasio to host a meeting of religious leaders, brought together to help find a way to reduce tension at a difficult time. We all agreed, however, that our gathering must not be simply in response to a particular “crisis” but must instead be the occasion for the beginning of an ongoing effort to continue and expand the efforts each faith group was making to serve God through our service to those around us.
Today, far too often, we see religion portrayed as being responsible for division and separation, and a cause for hatred and violence. Last Sunday, in Albania, Pope Francis declared, “Let no one use God as a ‘shield’ while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!” Unfortunately, in some parts of the world, this twisted interpretation of religion is a reality. We are blessed that we New Yorkers know from our shared experience that religion can be the foundation of tolerance, understanding, and unity. Would that our experience be a model for others to follow!
Of course, Jews and Catholics in New York have long enjoyed a special relationship that extends back decades, built upon a joint dialogue that has resulted in mutual respect, and friendship. I have personally come to appreciate the beauty of that friendship as, for instance, I have lit a candle on the menorah at Temple Emanu-El, hosted a gathering at my residence of Jewish leaders to discuss the visit of the Pope to a Synagogue in Rome, attended a Passover seder, or accepted the gift of a granite bench from the ADL in commemoration of the wonderful spirit of interfaith understanding between Catholics and Jews. I am grateful to my predecessors as Archbishop of New York, as I am to those leaders of the Jewish community, whose work bravely brought us closer together at a time when relationships were not as strong, nor the atmosphere as open for dialogue as it is today.
While each of the Jewish holy days and festivals has special meaning, I am particularly inspired each year by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for sins, and a recognition of God’s great mercy towards His people. There are, of course, parallels in Christian practices. I am reminded of Lent and Holy Week in the Christian calendar, where we reflect on our sins, and, for Catholics and many other denominations, are encouraged in a special way to participate in the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation), and to engage in fasting and acts of self-sacrifice. Who can forget the many times that Pope Francis has spoken of the great and tender mercy of God. All of these find their roots in the Jewish call for examining our lives, acknowledging our sinfulness, seeking reconciliation with God and neighbor, and undergoing a personal conversion of heart.
What message could be more timely for us today than one that reminds us of the need to own up to our shortcomings and seek God’s help for doing better in the future. It’s easy to think of conversion of heart as something that other people need to do, and we are especially reminded during UN week that there are many troubled spots in our world, places like Syria, or the Ukraine, for instance, where it is easy to pray that God will bring about a change of heart and peace will come. But what about conversion in our own hearts and lives? Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that shining symbol of holiness and self-sacrifice, said it best when she was once asked, “If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?” She replied, simply, “Me.” All of us, starting with yours truly, need to ask: Am I living up to what I profess? Where do I fall short and what about my life needs changing? It’s at the heart of Yom Kippur, and a welcome reminder to us all.
So, as we wish our Jewish brothers and sisters a peaceful and prayerful celebration of their High Holy Days, we also thank them for reminding us of the reality of sin and necessity of conversion.