Saint Joseph’s was the first American college to found an organization dedicated to increasing knowledge and deepening understanding between Jews and Catholics. Known at its inception as the Jewish-Catholic Institut

 


On an overcast September afternoon, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, Pope Francis, surprised hundreds of students when he made an unscheduled stop at Saint Joseph’s University to bless a newly dedicated statue.

The bronze sculpture of two seated, feminine figures, their heads crowned and bodies draped in graceful garments reminiscent of Renaissance style, was installed on the plaza in front of the Chapel of St. Joseph-Michael J. Smith, S.J., Memorial just days before the papal visit on September 27. Secured atop a concrete foundation and granite plinth, the two women, based on the medieval allegorical figures Synagoga (Synagogue) and Ecclesia (Church), each hold documents representing their respective religions, Judaism and Catholicism: Synagoga cradles a partially opened Torah scroll, and Ecclesia clasps Scripture in an open Bible. 

Its creator, Philadelphia sculptor Joshua Koffman, has captured a moment of quiet intensity. Synagoga glances at the New Testament as Ecclesia notices the Torah, their gazes shifting away from the solitary study of their own faiths in order to begin to fathom the tradition of the other. And though their eyes don’t quite meet, it seems clear that this moment is about the interaction of these two figures, now friends, embarking on this new study together. 

These emblematic characters haven’t always been portrayed as friends. 

“Medieval conceptions of the figures found on European churches and cathedrals portrayed Ecclesia as regal and triumphant, and Synagoga as vanquished and despised,” says Jewish-Catholic relations scholar Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of theology and director of SJU’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR). “Those early versions are artifacts of the reality of how some Church leaders have viewed the Jewish faith over time.” 

SJU’s sculpture, called “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” evokes the modern relationship between Jews and Catholics, and was developed by Koffman in consultation with Cunningham, and Jewish studies scholar Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., an assistant professor and assistant director of the IJCR. 

The statue was dedicated on September 25 to mark the 50th anniversary of the document that made the new relationship possible, which the Second Vatican Council released in the fall of 1965. Latin for “In Our Time,” Nostra Aetate — the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions — encourages dialogue with all faiths. Saint Joseph’s and its IJCR celebrated the golden jubilee of this groundbreaking statement along with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the World Meeting of Families and the combined leadership of Philadelphia’s Jewish community. The dedication drew more than 300 guests to the Chapel the day before Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia, including his longtime friend, the prominent Buenos Aires rabbi, Abraham Skorka, with whom he co-authored On Heaven and Earth, a book about their interreligious dialogue. Rabbi Skorka delivered a keynote, titled “Fifty Years of Nostra Aetate: Past and Future.”

“The ultimate aim of Nostra Aetate was to create a new reality for Jews and Catholics — a new world in which they are not opposed but can actively study and learn together, and so enrich each other and assist each other in walking their covenantal lives with God,” said Skorka, who was also present when the pontiff offered his benediction on the sculpture two days later. 

While the intent of Nostra Aetate was to open Catholicism to engage with other faiths, its most notable effect can be seen in the change in relations specifically between Jews and Catholics. “It [Nostra Aetate] transformed this relationship by reversing centuries of Christian claims that Jews were enemies of God whose covenantal life was obsolete,” says Cunningham, a noted author, scholar and leader in Jewish-Catholic relations. 

Gregerman, who studies Jewish-Christian relations, says “Nostra Aetate marks a break in a millennial-long estrangement [between Jews and Catholics] that begins to come to an end only in the last half century. 

“I come at this study as a contemporary American Jew with an interest in that long history, and I see Nostra Aetate as a turning point — a remarkable U-turn, if you will — in that history.”

In commissioning the sculpture for the golden jubilee of Nostra Aetate, both men also wished to celebrate Saint Joseph’s long commitment to Jewish-Catholic relations. 

“We’re proud that in founding the Institute in 1967, Saint Joseph’s responded almost immediately to the Second Vatican Council’s call by engaging in honest and open dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” says Cunningham, who began his Saint Joseph’s tenure as a professor and IJCR director in 2008. “The sculpture itself, in addition to commemorating Nostra Aetate in a meaningful way, recognizes that Saint Joseph’s has a unique place in realizing the vision of the document, and sets a new impetus for the future of the Jewish-Catholic relationship.”

Allen is director of communications at Saint Joseph’s University.