Three years ago, just before Easter, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke attended a Passover seder with about 25 people to commemorate God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Guests wore yarmulkes — Burke brought his own fuchsia zucchetto worn by bishops — as a symbol of God’s presence, and enjoyed traditional seder fare: matzo, horseradish, apples and wine.
But this was not a traditional Passover seder.
“It was a seder celebrated in the light of Christ,” said David Moss, the seder’s host and president of the St. Louis-based Association of Hebrew Catholics.
Despite the risk of creating a rift with the local Jewish community, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has given the group its encouragement and support since 2006, when Burke (now a Vatican judge) welcomed it into the archdiocese.
When Moss’ organization announced its first national conference scheduled for October in St. Louis, the agenda included Burke and archdiocesan leaders. And that worries local Jewish groups.
After centuries of often contentious relations, in the last 50 years Catholic and Jewish leaders have generally come to an understanding on the idea of Catholics proselytizing Jews: Don’t do it.
The biblical command in the Gospel of Matthew to “make disciples of all nations” by baptizing them is at the heart of Christianity, and it can put evangelical-minded Catholics in an awkward position when they approach Jews.
Moss and a church official said the group works with Jewish converts to Catholicism and does not proselytize Jews. But the work of some of the conference’s speakers suggests otherwise.
Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, said the archdiocese's participation in the conference was “deeply concerning.”
“This is not just about proselytization,” she said. “It’s about these groups, apparently with the support of the archdiocese, redefining how a Jew relates to his or her faith.”
In 1985, a U.S. bishops committee dealing with Catholic-Jewish relations said “proselytism, which does not respect human freedom, is carefully to be avoided.”
Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said “one of the things that the Jewish community knows, or should know, with confidence is that the Catholic Church does not proselytize, particularly to Jews.”
The Association of Hebrew Catholics aims to end “the alienation of Catholics of Jewish origin and background from their historical heritage,” according to its website.
At least one of the scheduled conference speakers for the October conference teaches adult catechism classes for the archdiocese, and the association has a regular lecture series at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica.
Another conference speaker is Marty Barrack, an association board member who has written, “We evangelize Jews because Jesus sent us to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Speaker Roy Schoeman’s website “is about, and celebrates, the relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church and the conversion of the Jews.”
Jewish converts to Catholicism, who call themselves Jewish Catholics, differentiate themselves from so-called messianic Jews, who are typically converts to evangelical Protestant Christianity who join groups such as Jews for Jesus.
Moss said that while his group had no plans to openly proselytize Jews in the same way as Jews for Jesus, it does promote a softer kind of evangelization.
“Jews outside the church need to see a Jewish reality inside the church,” Moss said. “We don’t evangelize, but if Jews are able to preserve themselves within the church, it will open the floodgates for Jews to come into the church.”
Jewish leaders in St. Louis flatly disputed the concept of a Jewish Catholic. “One cannot be Catholic and be Jewish,” said Abramson-Goldstein.
“Those folks who are Jewish who formally convert to Catholicism or to another denomination in which they find that Jesus is Christ, they are not Jewish Catholics or messianic Jews,” added Aroesty. “They are Christians.”
The seder with Burke was held the year after the Hebrew Catholics group arrived in St. Louis from Michigan. Other diocesan leaders, including Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann and Monsignor Joseph Pins, rector of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, have attended subsequent seders, Moss said.
Both Hermann and Pins will celebrate Mass at the October conference, and Moss is planning to show an hour-long videotaped interview with Burke.
Burke’s approval of the organization is important because of his standing in the Vatican. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI tapped Burke to head the Vatican’s supreme court. Burke now sits on three of nine Vatican “congregations” and the pope is likely to elevate Burke to cardinal this fall.
Burke responded to an interview request in a statement: “With regard to the Association of Hebrew Catholics, I have no comment to offer.”
Current Archbishop Robert Carlson was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Moss, 68, who is retired from IBM, said he hopes to attract more than 400 people to the October event. He said about 800 people receive his group’s newsletter, but only about 250 members consider themselves Hebrew Catholics.
Lawrence Welch, executive director of the archdiocese’s office of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, said “the Gospel is for everyone, but the Catholic Church doesn’t specifically target Jews with proselytization.”
Welch makes a distinction between evangelizing and proselytizing, which he described as “nonethical ways of seeking the conversion of others, or arm-twisting.”
“My understanding of the group is that they do not target Jews for conversion,” Welch said of the Association of Hebrew Catholics. “That’s what they’ve told the leadership of the archdiocese. They’re in good standing with the archdiocese.”