What a privilege it was to witness the mass to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Bishop of Aachen, Heinrich Mussinghoff, whom Vickie and I met three years ago in Jerusalem.
As we entered the cathedral, a reporter with a microphone asked if I would like to wish the bishop a happy birthday. In my greeting I stated why I as an American rabbi was eager to honor Bishop Mussinghoff:
He has been an extraordinary friend of the Jews.
Three years ago, a controversy erupted when a proposed law to ban the practice of infant circumcision in Germany gained significant traction. As Chairman of the Conference of German Bishops, Bishop Mussinghoff eloquently protested that the bill impinged on the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims. He was a major reason for its defeat.
Subsequently, Pope Benedict proposed to reintroduce language in the traditional Good Friday ritual calling for the conversion of the Jews. In response, Bishop Mussinghoff took the extraordinary step of publicly questioning the Pope’s decision.
There are not that many Jews in Aachen, so the bishop gained no political capital for his courageous acts. They stem from his firm belief in the legitimacy of the Jewish faith.
Vickie and I will never forget the extraordinary courtesy the bishop showed us. We were his guests at the Bishop’s Academy Conference Center for four days. He arranged special tours for us—of the old city of Aachen and of the Charlemagne Cathedral and its treasures–with two expert guides.
On the night before the mass, which was the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the historic church document that formally absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, the bishop arranged for me to lecture at the academy about my book, which was recently published in German.
For the Thursday afternoon mass, the eighth-century Cathedral overflowed with worshippers. There was a full orchestra and two magnificent and very large choirs. Bishops from all over Germany, and the Cardinal of Cologne joined in the celebration of the mass.
At the reception following the celebration, there was a separate table with kosher food. As I approached it, a determined young nun stopped me and said, that the kosher food was reserved for our Jewish guests.
“That would be us,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, ”Are you Rabbi Fuchs? It seems that you and your wife are the only Jewish guests still here. The Rabbi of Aachen left right after the formal part of the reception.”
There was enough kosher food to feed a small Bar Mitzvah party, and so the guardian nun agreed to my suggestion that the non-Jewish guests be welcome to partake of it in addition to the other food being served.
As we left the reception we picked up a newspaper hot off the press. It’s headline proclaimed (in German), “A Bishop for All People!” I could not agree more.