The installation of a new pope this past March 13, 2013 is ushering in a new era in Jewish-Catholic relations. Pope Francis formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76 of Argentina had been committed as a cardinal to interfaith-dialogue and having a good relationship with Argentina’s Jewish Community. He brought that same commitment to the papacy, winning the praise of Jewish communities around the world upon his election.
Pope Francis is known most by world Jewry for his support of the Jewish community in the aftermath of the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish Community Center which resulted in 85 deaths and over 100 injured. In 2005, as a cardinal, Pope Francis initiated the petition “85 victims, 85 signatures” when on the eleventh anniversary the bombing remained unresolved, and no individual or group was brought to justice for the attack although it is believed Hezbollah and Iran where behind it. In 2011 he visited the rebuilt community center.
Therefore it was fitting that in commemoration of the 19th anniversary on July 5, two weeks before the actual date of the bombing, Pope Francis invited the victims of the attack and their relatives, many of which belong to the organization Relatives and Friends of the Victims to the Vatican to meet with him.
Pope Francis also met since becoming pope with Julio Schlosser the president of the DAIA, the Argentine Jewish political organization. Schlosser had been given the honor of being only the second Argentine official Pope Francis met with after Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Pope also met with Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a legislator in Argentina, and Latin American Jewish Congress Executive Director Claudio Epelman.
Hearing of his election, Jewish leaders worldwide rejoiced at the choice for the 266th Pope. Most statements referred to his history with the Jewish community in Argentina and initiating inter-faith dialogues.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated; “In the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, the widely shared impression is that he’s very friendly, that the cardinal was determined to have a cordial relationship with the Jewish community.”
American Jewish communal organizations also greeted the new Pope’s election positively Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold spoke for the organization stating; “We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires.”
Rabbi David Rosen American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) International Director of Interreligious Affairs in a statement said; “We anticipate a close relationship with Pope Francis, as, together with our Catholic partners, we continue to advance Catholic-Jewish relations. Pope Francis has demonstrated his profound solidarity with the Jewish community in Argentina in both times of sorrow and joy. We look forward to continued close collaboration with the Catholic Church under his leadership as we have been privileged to enjoy his predecessors.”
While Anti-Defamation League (ADL) head Abraham Foxman stated “We congratulate the new Pope and wish him well in his important new responsibility. We believe that the election of Francis I is a significant moment in the history of the Church. We look forward to working with him to continue to foster Catholic-Jewish relations as we have with his predecessors. There is much in his record that reassures us about the future. “
The reaction from Jewish leaders and organizations throughout the world was even more optimistic; Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a senior rabbi from Buenos Aires who knew the Pope in Argentina excitedly stated in Spanish on Twitter; “Argentines and men and women of good will, as brothers, we celebrate the unity in diversity convened together for Francisco I.” While World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder also had met Pope Francis when he was a cardinal stated; “He always had an open ear for our concerns. I am sure that Francis I will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”
Hours after being elected to the papacy Pope Francis reached out to the top leader of the Jewish community in Rome, Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni sending him a letter inviting him to the official installation on March 19, and expressing interest in a “renewed collaboration” with the Jewish community.
Pope Francis wrote Rabbi Di Segni:
“On this day of my election as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church, I send you my cordial greetings, informing you that the solemn inauguration of my pontificate will take place on Tuesday, 19 March.
“Trusting in the protection of the Most High, I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of the relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics since Vatican Council II in a spirit of renewed collaboration and in service of a world that may always be more in harmony with the Creator’s will.”
Rabbi Di Segni attended the installation which was held the week before Passover and told the Jewish press “I blessed him for success and told him that we are interested to meet, the Jewish community and him, in a way that would be useful.” The two religious leaders met on March 20 at a meeting of delegations of religious leaders, Christian and non-Christian.
It was only the beginning of Pope Francis’s collaboration with the world Jewish community, which has only intensified during the first 100 days of Francis’s papacy. Only a week later the two religious leaders in Rome sent each other by letter wishes for Passover and Easter.
Pope Francis wrote the Roman Jewish community for Passover:
“A few days on from our meeting, and with renewed gratitude for your having desired to honor the celebration of the beginning of my ministry with your presence and that of other distinguished members of the Jewish community, I take great pleasure in extending my warmest best wishes to you and Rome’s entire Jewish community on the occasion of the Great Feast of Pesach. May the Almighty, who freed His people from slavery in Egypt to guide them to the Promised Land, continue to deliver you from all evil and to accompany you with His blessing. I ask you to pray for me, as I assure you of my prayers for you, confident that we can deepen [our] ties of mutual esteem and friendship.”
The government of Israel was also enthusiastic about the election of a pope with a history of good relations with the Jewish community of his country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately sent congratulations as did the President Shimon Peres who also included an invitation to visit Israel in his congratulatory remarks.
At the end of April Israeli President Shimon Peres privately met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Pere presented the new Pope with a bible inscribed “To his Holiness Pope Francis, ‘So that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go’ (1 Kings 2:3). Peres also formerly invited the Pope to visit Israel; “I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel,” Peres said after their meeting. Pope Francis accepted, but did not give a date, and told Peres; “I learned optimism from you; you are an inspiration to me.”
President Peres was seeking the Pope’s assistance and influence in initiating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Peres told Pope Francis; “The citizens of Israel see in you a leader of peace and good will. The sooner you visit the better, as in these days a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace.” This will be Pope Francis’s second trip to Israel; he previously went to Israel in 1973, prior to the Six-Day War.
Pope Francis reciprocated by wishing President Peres a happy 90th birthday in the middle June where he wrote:
“On the happy occasion of your ninetieth birthday, I am pleased to send cordial greetings along with the assurance of my prayers for Your Excellency and for all who share this celebration with you.
I renew my thanks for the kind visit that you paid me at the end of April, and for our fruitful exchange on a number of matters of common interest to the Holy See and the State of Israel.
On this auspicious day, allow me to add my voice to those of many others from around the world who are paying tribute to Your Excellency.
I am reminded of the concluding verse of the ninety-first psalm: “With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation,” (v. 16) and I pray that the Lord who has already blessed you with fourscore years and ten will continue to bless you and keep you, to make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, to lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (cf. nu, 6:24-26).”
In the end of June, Pope Francis met with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations which included additional Jewish organizational leaders and representatives from the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, and the World Jewish Congress. It was the official meeting between Jewish community leaders and the Pope. Pope Francis emphasized “A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” urging closer relations between the two religious groups.
Pope Francis gave remarks to the delegation, reiterating the 1965 Second Vatican Council teachings the “Nostra Aetate,” declaring Jews were not responsible for Jesus’s death, and that stopped attempts to convert Jews, paving the way for a dialogue between the two religions. Pope Francis also looked to church history and pointed to the fact that St. Paul “firmly condemned hatred, persecution and all forms of anti-Semitism.” Reiterating his main point that; “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!” Pope Francis continued saying; “Humanity needs our joint witness in favour of respect for the dignity of man and woman created in the image and likeness of God, and in favour of peace which is above all God’s gift.”
Rabbi David Rosen expressed his satisfaction with meeting the Pope stating; “Pope Francis is a very good friend of the Jewish people and we rejoice in the fact that he will continue to advance the path of his predecessors in deepening the Catholic-Jewish relationship even further.”
Pope Francis, while the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Cardinal in Argentina showed a commitment to elevating Jewish-Catholic relations. He regularly met with leaders of the Jewish community and visited local synagogues, and attended in 2007 Rosh Hashannah services at Benei Tikva Slijot synagogue in a Buenos Aires. He also lit Hanukkah candles at Temple NCI-Emanu El, a Masorti congregation with Rabbi Alejandro Avruj months prior to his election as pope where he expressed solidarity with the congregation saying; “Like a pilgrim, together with you, my elder brothers.”
The former Cardinal Bergoglio also installed a permanent exhibit in honor of the victims of the Holocaust and held a memorial ceremony in 2012 for Kristallnacht at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. He also co-authored one book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra “On Heaven and Earth,” it was a book length transcript of their televised dialogue on religious and philosophical issues, their discussions regularly appeared on the Archdiocesan TV channel.
In his remarks to the delegation of International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, Pope Francis recalled fondly his relations with the Jewish community in Argentina; “We talked often of our respective religious identities, the image of man found in the Scriptures, and how to keep an awareness of God alive in a world now secularized in many ways.”
Pope Francis has proven in his first 100 days to be a friend to world Jewry and the most pro-Jewish Pope to date. Although, Pope Francis’s emphasis that a “Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!” may not end anti-Semitism, it is a start to improved Jewish-Catholic relations. Perhaps throughout his tenure Pope Francis might be able to make a dent in eroding residual anti-Semitism Jews face in the world today.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.