On June 6, 1960, Pope John appointed the German Jesuit Cardinal Augustine Bea to be the first president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, a newly formed Vatican office charged with the task of promoting ecumenical affairs. Bea was to play a critical role in the writing and passage of Nostra Aetate.
Known amongst the Vatican establishment as a humble and sincere biblical scholar and archaeologist, Bea was held in high esteem by his colleagues in the College of Cardinals. Pope John understood in advance the difficulties that might arise in the creation, debates, and eventual passage of an official statement on the Church’s relations with the Jewish people throughout history. He knew that he needed a leader whom his colleagues trusted as honest, knowledgeable, and not driven by personal or political ambition. Bea, already in his 80’s, naturally congenial and modest yet of great intellect, and having accomplished much as a member of the Vatican’s most important group, the Curia, seemed an inspired choice to shepherd the statement on non-Christian religions and particularly on the Jews. The fact that Bea was German served to strengthen his moral gravitas in that it was Germany from which Nazism and the Final Solution had emerged.
Bea immediately began composing a series of draft statements that could be debated and modified with the hope of final passage. While Bea was the prime architect of the declaration, he received critical assistance and advice from Dutch Bishop Johannes Willebrands, Belgian Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt, French Bishop Pierre François Marie Joseph Duprey, and others. But perhaps Bea’s most important advisor throughout the process was the eminent Polish-American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
By the mid-1960’s, Heschel was already viewed as a titanic moral leader throughout the Western world. During The Holocaust, Heschel escaped to America, though many of his closest relatives were murdered and he never returned to Poland. In the United States he became a distinguished author and professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As a personal and public witness in the American Civil Rights Movement, he was to become known for “Praying with his feet” (his words) by marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Cardinal Bea relied heavily upon Rabbi Heschel’s input in the construction of what was to become Nostra Aetate.