Sisters of Sion: The Nuns Who Opened Their Doors for Europe's Jews

On the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, remembering one order's work toward religious tolerance


Bishops attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI marking the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council on Thursday. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

When I tell friends and family about the summer I spent living in Europe and Israel with an order of women religious, they are always surprised: Convents are not a typical summer get-away for young Jewish girls. But the Sisters of Sion have a distinctive vocation. They see it as their God-given role to love the Jewish people and build bridges between the Jews and the Church -- without proselytizing.

This October marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In light of the religious violence sparked throughout the Middle East during the past month, the the Sisters of Sion's work during this complicated time in the Church's history holds particular poignance. Opened by Pope John XXIII in the fall of 1962 to help the Church reconcile some of the "great problem[s] confronting the world," Vatican II aimed in part to rebrand Catholicism for the modern age, rethinking everything from the role of bishops to the language of worship services. But one of the more controversial questions looming that autumn was how the Church might begin to heal the wounds of Christian anti-Semitism, which seemed in dire need of attention after the Holocaust . Over three years, four Council sessions, and many political battles, a declaration was hammered out: Nostra Aetate, or "In our age." The declaration recognized the kinship between Christians and Jews, repudiated any charges of deicide levied against contemporary Jews, and decried acts of anti-Semitism throughout history. Looking back now, these steps toward dialogue may seem so basic as to be obvious: How can two peoples co-exist when one still blames the other for killing its savior? Yet, at the time, this was an important step towards interfaith cooperation and tolerance.

The Sisters of Sion worked hard to achieve such an explicit repudiation of the concept of "deicide." Of the more than 3,000 bishops, translators, scholars, and aides present at Vatican II, only 23 were women -- and these Council "mothers" were only silent observers. But that did not stop the Sisters of Sion from working behind the scenes to influence the Council's work on Catholic-Jewish relations.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion was founded in France in 1843 by Theodore and Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, brothers who came from a prominent Jewish banking family in Strasbourg. Theodore converted to Catholicism after much reflection and internal conflict, while his brother, Alphonse, converted after experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary which, he claimed, helped him better understand the condition of the Jews. Although Alphonse stated that he wanted to create an order of religious women to do the work of "raising poor young Jewish girls and making Christians of them," from the beginning, the Order focused on creating a safe spiritual home for all children and a place of welcome for Jewish women. This was an uncommon attitude in the Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when Christians often prayed for Jewish conversion while also focusing on the sins of the Jews. Specifically, these prayers focused on their Biblical rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and involvement in his death, which was commonly thought of as a responsibility inherited by contemporary Jews. Prayers citing the "perfidious Jews" were not taken out of the Good Friday liturgy until 1959.

During the Holocaust, the Sisters were heavily involved in rescue efforts, forging documents for Jewish children and hiding them in schools. After the war, mindful of the dangers of even more subtle anti-Semitism, the Order shifted the language of its mission, dimming the emphasis on "conversion of the children of Israel" and exploring the best way of being a "friend" to the Jews.

This was a complicated time for the Church. Pope Pius XII, who led the Vatican during World War II, never officially condemned the Nazis or their mass murder of the Jews, though there is strong evidence that he was aware of what was going on. Private correspondences show that the Pope was concerned both about potential backlash against Catholic soldiers and civilians and increased cruelty toward the Jews, but his vague public appeals for peace and official wartime neutrality did not sit well with the public, especially after the war had ended and the extent of the killing became more widely known.

Pius XII's successor attempted to repair the damage. In 1960, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Jules Isaac visited Pope John XXIII. Afterwards, the Pope met with biblical scholar Cardinal Augustin Bea to discuss the possibility of including a statement on the Jews in the work of Vatican II.

From the beginning, the Sisters of Sion were a part of this effort. In his first speech to the Congregation in January of 1964, Cardinal Bea spoke of Sion's particular vocation, which gave the Sisters a "special right" to speak of the Church's spiritual relationship with the Jews. He encouraged the Sisters to increase their work with the Jews as a way to "make up for the ingratitude, unkindness, and injustice of Christians to these people -- faults which the Church has committed throughout the ages."

The Sisters, corresponding with influential Church leaders, pushed for a more radical rethinking of the attitude towards Judaism. Sisters Magda Manipoud and Dominique Gros in Paris were in contact with leading French Council bishops, including the Archbishops of Lyon, Rouen, Paris, Lille, Reims, Cambrai and Toulouse. While the Sisters' input was sometimes received less than enthusiastically by these Council Fathers, the Sisters remained in contact with them throughout the second, third, and fourth sessions of the Council.

In the later years of the Council Sister Magda met with Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, a leading member of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity who made a significant "intervention" in the Council on behalf of Nostra Aetate in 1964, after his team of theologians asked the Sisters to prepare a dossier of information on Catholic-Jewish relations. In April of 1965, Sister Magda was chosen to accompany two other women, Sister Dominique Gros and the Superior General of the Congregation, Sister Marie Laurice, on a visit to Bologna to meet with Cardinal Lercaro and his team of theologians to discuss possible liturgical reforms which would encourage a more meaningful and just Christian attitude toward the Jews.

The Sisters also hosted Council Fathers in their communities to discuss their work and reflect upon the events of the Council. Father Gregory Baum, a theological expert at the Council, regularly stayed at the Sisters' house in London on his way to and from Rome, providing the Sisters with first-hand information about the difficulties of getting Nostra Aetate passed. In exchange, the Sisters passed feedback from local Jewish communities to the Council Fathers working on drafts of Nostra Aetate in Rome. After a weak version of a draft of Nostra Aetate was leaked to the public in 1964, the Provincial leadership of the Sisters in London wrote a letter to Archbishop Heenan, a representative at Vatican II. Their letter told of strong "reactions aroused in Jewish circles" in the London community, including disappointment about language in the draft that could be interpreted as a call to conversion. They also pointed to the failure to include language eliminating blame for "deicide," writing that this was "taken to imply that Jews at the time of Christ were collectively responsible" for the death of Christ. Archbishop Heenan responded, declaring his intention to act on the Sisters' concerns about proselytism. The new draft of Nostra AetateĀ -- already in progress at the time of the leak -- added an explicit rejection of accusations of Jewish responsibility for deicide was added back into the draft of Nostra Aetate.

After the Council, the Sisters' work on interreligious dialogue blossomed through the creation of centers for research and dialogue in Rome and Paris. Sion's first members in the mid-nineteenth century, women educators with a special interest in fostering Christian-Jewish friendship, were ahead of their time in the love and respect they afforded all of their students, regardless of their faith. One hundred years later, a dedicated handful of young women helped to shape the Church's first declaration of goodwill toward the Jewish people. Whatever the other debates over Church reform, this was a significant symbolic step in a two-thousand-year history of violence and disagreement.

Two years after my summer with the Sisters, I still get emails from the women I met, always ending with well-wishes for an easy fast on Yom Kippur or a good Passover Seder with my family. Never once did I feel uncomfortable as a Jewish woman living in Catholic convents--on the contrary, staying with the Sisters of Sion brought me closer to my faith. So many Sisters enthusiastically helped me sift through dusty documents, patiently listened to my Frenglish, and openly shared their life stories, offering an example of what it means to live taking the words from the Gospel of St. John to heart. They are the same words cited in the conclusion of Nostra Aetate:

"Whoever does not love, does not know God."

A version of this post appeared in the February 2012 issue of Ecumenical Trends.