One of the signal achievements of the post-Vatican II era was been the integration of the full Hebrew-Israelite history into the Roman Catholic experience. For example, the 1970 Roman Missal’s inclusion of Old Testament text into the Liturgy of the Word is a weekly reminder of the unity of revelation in the two Testaments. The Mass of my youth contained only two readings, generally from Paul’s letters and the Four Gospels. The only text from Hebrew Scripture in the Tridentine Mass was the responsorial psalm, then called the “Gradual” or “Tract.” Subsequent paragraphs in the Catechism over the next several weeks will elaborate on the nature of Revelation through the various stages of Israel’s history.
Paragraph 61 is somewhat enigmatic. It singles out categories of individuals and “certain other figures” of Biblical history and asserts that they have been and always will be honored as saints in the Church’s liturgical traditions. This paragraph is true primarily from the long view; specifically, the Church’s relationship with both the texts and the history of chosen Israel is extremely complex, one might say almost schizophrenic. The treasury of the Psalms has been the backbone of the daily prayer of clerics and religious since the fourth century, and continues so in the Liturgy of the Hours. On the other hand, I have in front of me at this moment an official Roman Missal of 1956 that I used daily. Turning to the intercessory prayers of the Good Friday rite, I find, “Almighty and everlasting God, who drivest not away from thy mercy even the perfidious Jews, hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people….” Para. 61 would have been more accurately worded as a wish than a fact.
Paragraph 61 makes special mention of the liturgy of the Church. In truth, there is no feast on the Church’s calendar—at least in the last 500 years I checked—devoted to an Old Testament figure. Some scholars have argued that John the Baptist is the last of the great prophets of Israel. John has a saint’s feast day and a commemoration of his beheading in the Roman calendar of saints, but he has come down to us, of course, as a major player in the events surrounding Christ’s infancy, baptism, and public ministry from the New Testament Gospels, not the Old.
Much of the confusion about the relationship between Jews and Christians dates back to the time of Jesus himself, who stated on numerous occasions that he had come to bring the Law and the Prophets to fulfillment. Jesus himself was a Jew and died a Jew. The early Christians remained Jewish. Some of the Easter narratives from the Gospels explain how Jesus brought the Hebrew Scripture to fulfillment. The early Church, in developing its doctrines, would freely use the Hebrew texts as predictors of the coming of the messiah Jesus and building blocks, so to speak, of Catholic theological science for most of its history.
A few example will suffice. The story of Adam and Eve and the sin of this couple was, for centuries, the foundation stone for the biological passage of (original) sin through human intercourse and generation, and thus the need for imminent Baptism. As late as 1950 Pius XII, in his Humani Generis, was still arguing for a kind of biological continuity to Adam to protect doctrines of Baptism and original sin. A better example is the belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, the description of the Suffering Servant who takes upon himself the sin and suffering of us all.
Hebrew Revelation, then, was related more to Catholic doctrine than to Catholic worship. The Church depended upon specific writings from the Hebrew Scripture to buttress Catholic teaching, a practice irreverently called “cherry picking” by some, or “proof texting” in more polite society. The idea was to approach the Hebrew Scripture in a pragmatic way, as a back-up to Catholic doctrine and theological research. However, outside of academia the typical lay Catholic of medieval times would know very little of Jewish Scripture and religion, and most of that would be highly negative. Christians would hear the various Passion narratives each spring, each laying responsibility for Jesus’ death at the feet of the Jews. (“May his blood be upon us and upon our children.”) Anti-Semitism was very strong even in the post-Apostolic era. A Christian scholar named Marcion (d. 160 A.D.) went so far as to deny the Old Testament entirely, a heresy that moved the Church to define the official books of both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, the canonical books of the bible.
Another factor in Christian life and outlook was the fact that the Jews before Christ—even such figures as Moses and David—had died prior to the death of Jesus, when the sin of Adam and its guilt was broken in the waters of Baptism. In short, Moses and the rest had died without the opportunity of washing in the saving bath of Baptism in their lifetimes. There was considerable discussion and speculation about the status of the people mentioned in para. 61. As early as possibly 600 A.D. there is extant a Holy Saturday sermon describing the phrase “Jesus descended into hell.” It appears in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday. In the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter, Jesus wanders the underworld (according to the sermon) and seeks out Adam and Eve to extend the grace of redemption to them. It would not have occurred to Christians to think of Old Testament figures as “saints,” despite the good deeds they may have accomplished, because they carried the burden of Adam’s sin within them.
The Church would eventually find terminology to describe the post-mortem circumstances of the holy souls of Israel, such as participating in “the anticipatory merits of Christ.” But until the post-Enlightenment development of modern Scripture studies which integrated the entire history of Israel into the Christian vision, revelatory contacts between Hebrew history and Christian faith were never as smooth as implied in para. 61.