By Carol Baass Sowa
|Archbishop Gustavo and Rabbi Bitranstep forward to light one of the Hanukkiah’s eight candles during a special joint celebration of Catholics and Jews held for the 11th time on Dec. 13.
Carol Baass Sowa | Today's Catholic
SAN ANTONIO • For the 11th year, Catholics and Jews gathered together for a special joint Hanukkah celebration that has become a unique San Antonio tradition. On Dec. 13, about 500 members of both faiths filled the tables at San Fernando Cathedral’s AT&T Community Centre, welcomed by San Fernando’s rector, Father Tony Vilano to “this Hanukkah celebration that has been going strong every year,” with Alice Viroslav, president of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, extending a “happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends and Merry Christmas to our Christian friends.”
A choral presentation of Hanukkah songs by the Providence High School Choir, led by Elaine Bir, was followed by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller’s opening prayer asking God that “the flame of these candles always shine brightly so that we may see a glimpse of your glory in each other.” Father Vilano noted that honorary chairpersons for the event were Msgr. Lawrence Stuebben, Sister Charlene Wedelich, CDP, Charles Martin “Marty” Wender and Robert Aguirre.
Msgr. Stuebben, in introducing guest speaker Wender, related that when he and Sister Charlene were asked to serve as coordinators for the San Antonio visit of Pope John Paul II 26 years ago, no one — themselves included — had any idea how to go about such an unprecedented undertaking here. They learned the visit was to include an outdoor Mass and San Antonio’s largest facility at the time was Alamo Stadium, which could only hold 25,000 people. A crowd of 500,000 was expected.
There was a recession going on at the time, Msgr. Stuebben recalled, and they quickly learned in making land inquiries that they were talking with owners from as far away as Chicago and Switzerland. The pontiff was coming in September of 1987, and by December of 1986 they still did not have a location in place for the Papal Mass.
“You can imagine that we were getting pretty nervous,” he said, “and then word came to me that a certain guy named Martin Wender, whom I didn’t know, thought that he could help us.” The coordinators went to his office and soon learned Wender was a man who “doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Msgr. remembers Wender telling his lawyer, “I want this to happen,” and within a week papers were signed for use of 144 acres in Westover Hills, with Wender’s people clearing the land, using planes to seed the field and taking Papal Visit coordinators for other U.S. cities on helicopter rides to show them what the San Antonians were doing in their preparations.
“We ended up having the largest Mass of major cities in the United States,” noted Msgr. Stuebben, with 350,000 persons attending. “It was a fantastic experience, the visit,” he said, “and he (Wender) was right at the heart of it.”
Wender noted that he originally had not gotten involved when he heard that the archdiocese was looking for land for the papal Mass, feeling sure there would be a land owner “to whom this would mean the world.” When no one stepped forward though and his secretary announced one day that two priests and a nun were there to talk with him, he found himself involved – especially after learning that if a place for the Mass could not be found within a week, the Mass would be moved to Houston. Not wanting the people of San Antonio to lose this significant event, he showed the coordinators several potential locations, the site was chosen and they were off and running.
A TV reporter’s commenting that a Jew was donating the land for a Catholic Mass led to its being referred to as an ecumenical event, and Wender recalled Jewish schools being let out to take part in the Papal Visit. The most important factor that came out of all this, he noted, was the special relationship of the two faiths coming together out of love and respect for one another.
Wender then shared why the Jewish people were so fond of Pope John Paul II. Quoting from Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Stahl’s tribute to Pope John Paul II, given at Temple Beth-El at the time of the pope’s death, Stahl had noted that while the great synagogue of Rome is located only two miles from the Vatican, no pope had ever set foot in it until John Paul II in 1986. When he did, “he hugged the rabbi as if he were family,” Stahl related — one of the pontiff’s numerous gifts that put an end to a past history of hostility by the church toward Judaism.
Noting the pope’s consistently demonstrating extraordinary compassion and understanding towards Jews, Stahl had then pointed out the pope’s having close Jewish friends when growing up in Poland. Pope John Paul II had also experienced firsthand the horrors of the Nazi terror, and a holocaust survivor had related that in 1945, as a starved 13 year old just liberated from a Nazi death camp, she was sitting on street corner too weak to walk when the future pontiff, then-Father Karol Wojtyla, a parish priest, brought her hot tea with bread and cheese. Learning she wanted to go to Krakow but was too weak to walk, she reported the priest hoisted her onto his shoulders and carried her three to four miles.
The pope further showed his compassion for the Jews when he refused to baptize a Jewish child who had been given for safekeeping to a Catholic couple by parents who had gone to their death in a concentration camp. When questioning the child’s guardians, Father Wojtyla learned the parents had requested that, should they not return, the child be told of his Jewish origins and returned to the Jewish people.
“John Paul forcibly rejected the pre-Vatican II view that Judaism was obsolete,” noted Wender. “He insisted the Jews are irrevocably the beloved of God. He spoke eloquently about close ties with Judaism and Christianity.” This was further seen in his empathy praying at a monument honoring Jewish martyrs at Auschwitz and in the moving prayer he placed between the stones in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
While the church had consistently held that the Jews were condemned to wander as a stateless people until accepting Jesus and Pope Pius X had refused to recognize the new state of Israel for this reason, Pope John Paul II abolished that belief, Wender related, establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993.
In the words of Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, Wender said in closing, “Pope John Paul II fundamentally changed two thousand years of a legacy between the church and the Jewish people.” Wender added, “Our hope is that we all honor that legacy by building on it for future generations.”
Rabbi Leonardo Bitran of Congregation Agudas Achim, filling in for the ailing Rabbi Emeritus Samuel M. Stahl of Temple Beth-El and Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Rodfei Sholom, noted he considered Wender’s explanation of the pope’s visit a miracle in the sense that a miracle is “when we do something ourselves first, before we pray to God for help,” such as took place in the parting of the waters for the early Israelites. Calling the day’s celebration “a phenomenal, phenomenal example of camaraderie among religions,” Rabbi Bitran performed a blessing in Hebrew over the Hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah), followed by the blessing given in English by Father Vilano.
After Rabbi Bitran and Father Vilano’s lighting of the shamash or “helper” candle, the following Catholic/Jewish pairs stepped forward to light the Hanukkiah’s eight candles: Archbishop Gustavo and Rabbi Bitran; Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú and Richard Alterman; Sister Margaret Doyle, CSB, and Joy Cutler; Father Richard Wosman, SM, and Leslie Komet Ausburn; Msgr. Michael Yarbrough and Andy Fagen; Msgr. Stuebben and Robbie Jalnos; Sister Kathleen Coughlin, CCVI, and Josh Sutin; and Mona Mengler and Elliot Weser.
Rabbi Crystal noted that in Jerusalem, after the lights of Hanukkah are kindled at the Western Wall, people find their way home, first by the menorahs lit outside homes in the Jewish quarter and then, in the Christian/Armenian quarter, by the lights of Christmas trees.
“It is truly a miracle to see the way that light brings us together and unifies our world,” he said. Thanking God for all the miracles of the season and the miracle of San Antonio’s interfaith community, he added, “May we be inspired by the legacy of Pope John Paul II to see the miracles all around us, know that we are partners with you in caring for each and every living being as a child of God.”