Bishop Richard Sklba was dismayed to find “a lovely teacher” in Jerusalem in 1964 who was afraid of priests.
This was 51 years before the Vatican issued a statement that Jews do not need to be converted to find salvation, and that Catholics should work with Jews to fight antisemitism.
That’s exactly what Sklba has been doing. Working on Jewish-Catholic relations with people such as Ron Shapiro, Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Shalom, Sklba, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Milwaukee, was in Jerusalem at the time “to gain a better understanding of the Jewish language.” He said, “I wanted Hebrew to be not just something I deciphered, but a living language for me.”
He wound up in a school for immigrants where the teacher would only allow Hebrew to be spoken.
He came home in 1965 “and found myself moving into religious dialogue,” he said. “I have been involved with it for half a century, locally and nationally. I have done a lot of writing and speaking on Jewish-Catholic relations.”
Sklba, born in Racine, has served the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee as an auxiliary bishop and general vicar under archbishops Dolan and Listecki.
Following in the footsteps of the late Pope John Paul II, who often devoted his energy to improving relations between Jews and Catholics and repeatedly condemned antisemitism, Sklba has worked toward “mutual understanding and friendship” between the two religions. He helped establish groups that meet together nearly every month.
With Passover and Easter overlapping this year, Sklba said group members discussed “certain questions about the meaning of Easter and Passover and ways we have different approaches to scripture to grow a mutual understanding and be united against prejudice.”
History includes Jews being suspicious of Christians and becoming frightened of them, Sklba said. “My basic premise is I hope we can have a fresh start in our relationship after 2,000 years of bitter conversation from both sides,” he said. “My hope is that we can put aside that history and start all over again with a mutual sense of cooperation. We want to be good partners in tikkun olam, to find a way to work together in mutual respect and for the healing of the world.”
Sklba, who chaired a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee working on interreligious affairs from 2005 to 2008, said it’s important to bring young people into the conversation.
“Together, let us fight against antisemitic currents, which surely are contrary to God’s will,” he said.
“Antisemitic violence that has surfaced the past couple of years has been very distressful. I feel very strongly that we have to work together to fight this scourge, this sickness, in society.”
Sklba said he is “hopeful that mutual understanding and mutual respect are growing. We are in a new age of Jewish-Catholic relations and have to come to a point of speaking honestly about our hopes and fears and misunderstandings, not only in small groups but universally.”
His message to the Jewish people is “the hope that we can find peace in this moment of history.”