c. 2005 Religion News Service
WHIPPANY, N.J. _ Sister Rose Thering is a wanted woman. On a February morning at her apartment, located in a sprawling Jewish community center complex, the 84-year-old Catholic nun’s phone rang incessantly.
Friends called with congratulations for a newspaper article highlighting the recent Oscar nomination for a documentary short film celebrating her lifelong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. Others called to wish her well on her trip to Hollywood for the Feb. 27 Academy Awards.
A leader in the field of Christian-Jewish relations for decades, the straight-shooting, single-minded nun has been thrust into a different kind of spotlight with the movie. Encouraged by actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, she brought down the house with an impromptu speech at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last May, where “Sister Rose’s Passion” won a prize. In Los Angeles, she hobnobbed with Warren Beatty and a top ABC television executive.
Sister Rose has become a star. But when she was first approached three years ago about collaborating on the film, Thering balked at being the center of attention. “I said no, forget it. Why? I know I’m retired, but I’m still very busy.”
Upon realizing that the publicity might bring in funds for her Seton Hall University endowment that provides grants to teachers for courses on the Holocaust, Jewish studies and Christian-Jewish relations, she conceded.
Born in 1920 in Plain, Wis., Thering grew up on a farm in a large Catholic family. Although the homogeneous town offered little exposure to different races or religions, she began to question attitudes toward Jews at a young age.
In the film, Thering tells a story of riding in the car with her parents when she was about 12. Her father whispers, “We have a new pharmacist, and I think he’s Jewish.” Thering asks, “Daddy, why did you whisper?”
“It’s so telling of who she is,” said the movie’s director, Oren Jacoby. “She had to say so if it wasn’t right _ even to her own father.”
In 1957, embarking on a doctoral degree in education at St. Louis University 21 years after she entered a Dominican convent, Thering found her calling. The American Jewish Committee was sponsoring a series of Christian self-studies of teaching materials in order to examine how they portrayed other religions, and Thering focused on Catholic religion textbooks. What she discovered _ phrases like “unclean dogs” and “children of the devil,” as well as the pervasive charge that all Jews, past and present, were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ _ sickened her.
When she presented her findings at a conference of Catholic school superintendents, almost all of them priests and bishops, one attendee questioned her criteria and told her that the Gospels would never change. Another left the room to call diocesan officials and complain that Thering was criticizing the church.
“A lot of heat went on her,” said Judith Banki, director of special programs at the New York-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, who met Thering in the early 1960s while working at the AJC. “A lesser woman might have crumpled under the pressure. But it only made her stronger, more determined. That experience may very well have radicalized her.”
When Thering went to Milwaukee soon after, the archbishop there took her to task for hanging “our dirty laundry on the line,” she said. Undeterred, she forged ahead.
“This sentiment about not airing one’s dirty laundry in public was really strong in the Catholic community, and still is today, as the sex abuse crisis shows,” said Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. “I don’t think there was much awareness of the issue in the sense that Catholic teaching had in some way contributed to the Holocaust. It had not yet crossed people’s minds.”
But times were changing. When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, the AJC began preparing materials, based on Thering’s textbook analysis, to send to the historic meeting in the hope that church leaders would repudiate anti-Jewish teachings.
In 1965, the document “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”) was adopted under Pope Paul VI, reversing the charge of deicide against the Jews. “Thank God that statement got passed, because that document pointed out that anti-Semitism is wrong,” said Thering. “It’s a sin. Jews are God’s special people _ the root from which we came.”
“It wasn’t a pretty truth about the church she cared more about than anything else in the world,” said Jacoby. “She’s the most unlikely hero in the world. She’s had success based solely on the strength of her idea and her stubbornness in fighting for it.”
(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)
Thering knew “Nostra Aetate” was not the end of the struggle. She continued monitoring textbooks and joined the staff of Seton Hall’s Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies. She traveled to Israel 54 times, sometimes leading study groups, and sometimes because she “needed Israel.” She helped make Holocaust education mandatory in all New Jersey schools. A photograph of Pope John II at the Polish capital’s monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising hangs on her wall, a gift from a Holocaust survivor.
“Jewish-Christian relations have always advanced from deep friendship and trust between people who are Christians and people who are Jews,” said Rabbi Michael A. Signer, director of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project. “It can begin with theology, but to blossom it has to be the living witness of one to the other _ the trust of sharing rather than compelling. I think Sister Rose found that.”
Thering was troubled by the portrayal of Jews in 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Sister Rose’s Passion” is in some ways a response, and a challenge, to Mel Gibson’s movie. Thering and others hope the documentary will reaffirm current Catholic doctrine and remind people, 40 years after “Nostra Aetate,” that more work lies ahead.
“Rose has incorporated into her own mind and heart so much Jewish experience, she has studied Jewish history and Jewish experience so profoundly, that she intuitively reacts to situations from a Jewish perspective,” said Banki.
MO/PH END RNS