With Francis' Friendship

Author: Norbert Hofmann

With Francis' Friendship

Norbert Hofmann*

A new impulse in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics

It seems particularly appropriate to reflect on Pope Francis commitment to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue and
its development in recent years, in keeping with the celebration held on 17 January, the day when the Church in Italy, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands celebrates the Day of Judaism (in Switzerland this day falls on the second Sunday of Lent). To this end, we shall note how the interest that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio showed in this dialogue in his home city of Buenos Aires now continues on the international level in the Vatican.

In July 2004, when the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in collaboration with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), decided to organize a conference in Buenos Aires, it availed itself of the energetic support of the local archbishop, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They wanted the meeting to take place in Buenos Aires, as Jews and Catholics desired especially to work together to help poor children who had suffered as a result of the county's economic recession. Considerable funds were collected through international
donations, which were then invested and distributed by local charities. The joint projects that resulted from the encounter include soup kitchens jointly operated by Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests, to cite just one example. In this context, the 2004 conference focused on "Justice and Charity" within the framework of their respective traditions. Participants visited several locations where collaboration on the social and charitable level had already been implemented. On that occasion, those who were part of the dialogue already recognized the strong ties of friendship that existed between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church in Buenos Aires.

Without a doubt, these relations can also be attributed to the archbishop of the city at the time, who managed to form personal friendships with rabbis and members of the Jewish community, beyond those that existed at an institutional level. One such friend is Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, with whom Cardinal Bergoglio appeared in several televised debates and, in 2010, published the book Heaven and Earth which was based on several talks they gave together on theological and pastoral issues. In 2012, on the suggestion of Cardinal Bergoglio, Rabbi Abraham Skorka was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Catolica Argentina.

At the institutional level, Cardinal Bergoglio kept in regular contact with the Latin American Congress, he formed a good friendship with their Secretary General Claudio Epelman over the years. He met many times with Jewish representatives and made numerous visits to synagogues, where he delivered lectures and participated in commemorative celebrations. As an example, we might recall the September 2007 Jewish celebration of the new year in the synagogue of B'nai Tikvah or the commemoration of the Night of Broken Glass organized together with representatives of B'nai B'rith in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires in November 2012. Cardinal Bergoglio showed great solidarity with the Jewish community of Buenos Aires when a bomb was detonated in the Community's centre in 1994. On the 11th anniversary of the attack, he was among the first to sign a document calling for justice for the victims. As a sign of support and encouragement, in 2010 Cardinal Bergoglio, together with the leaders of the Jewish community, visited the newly reconstructed centre.

The term "elder brothers" coined by Pope John Paul II in regard to the Jews, was also often used by Cardinal Bergoglio, who truly sees the Jews as brothers and sisters with whom we share our pilgrimage here on earth in the sight of God.

The day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's election to the papacy, the Jewish community of Rome received a letter from him in which he reiterated his firm intention to promote dialogue with the Jews: "My lively hope is to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics has seen since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed partnership and at the service of a world that can be in ever greater harmony with the will of the Creator'". Thus from the outset it was clear that the new Pope would work unsparingly for the advancement of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, in order to deepen and strengthen the bonds of friendship which already exist between them. Some of our Jewish interlocutors were of the opinion that Pope Benedict XVI — given the personal biography of his life — was the last Pope who was able to understand the human tragedy of the Holocaust, and that this was also why he had so committed himself to the work of reconciliation with the Jews. Apparently, they had not foreseen that after him a Pope would be elected who, on the basis of the Conciliar Document Nostra Aetate (n. 4), had already contributed greatly to Jewish-Catholic dialogue, and had given it a decisive impetus in South America. The Jewish community therefore welcomed the election of Cardinal Bergoglio with particular joy; indeed, the many messages congratulating him bear clear witness to this.

At the inaugural ceremony for Pope Francis' pontificate on 19 March 2013, a delegation of senior Jewish representatives was present including friends from the United States, Israel and Argentina. Naturally a delegation from the Jewish community of Rome was also present, led by their Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni. Subsequently, numerous requests were sent to the new Pontiff from organizations, groups and individuals who wished to be received in audience. Yet because an official partner in dialogue has existed since 1970 — the IJCIC mentioned above — priority was given to a delegation of this international organization which has long been involved in interreligious dialogue. IJCIC is comprised of Jewish organizations with centres primarily in the United States (of the 14 million Jews in the world, 5.5 million live in the United States). On 24 June 2013, during a private audience, Pope Francis greeted the representatives of the IJCIC as "elder brothers" and said he was pleased to welcome an official Jewish delegation in the Vatican for the first time during his pontificate. On that occasion, he recalled the importance of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate and his predecessors' commitment to promoting dialogue. He also noted his own personal experiences in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Buenos Aires. Finally, he reiterated the need for a common witness of Christians and Jews: "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". In his address, the Holy Father also referred to the meeting organized by the IJCIC and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in Madrid from 13 to 16 October 2013. The conference's theme was "Challenges for Religion in Contemporary Society". It reflected on the common heritage of Jews and Christians, the importance of human rights and religious liberty, the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing prevalence of anti-Semitism.

Pope Francis continues to maintain regular contact with his Jewish friends in Argentina, and they, through their visits to the Holy Father in the Vatican, also bear witness to the continuing bond of affection and friendship that developed when Cardinal Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

On the local level, from the outset Pope Francis has expressed his intention to establish close relations with the Jewish community of Rome. On the day inaugurating his pontificate, he personally communicated to their Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, his desire to meet soon with representatives of his cornmunity. This occurred on 11 October 2013, five days before the 70th anniversary commemorating the deportation of the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Pope noted this tragic event; he stressed the historical importance of the Jewish community of Rome and the ups and downs that have marked the coexistence of Jews and Catholics in the city. Once again Pope Francis referred to his efforts to promote Catholic-Jewish dialogue in his homeland and, on the basis of the Ten Commandments, he recalled their common challenges: "I hope to contribute here in Rome, as its Bishop, to this closeness and friendship, as I also had the grace — indeed it was a grace — to do with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. Among the many things that can unite us is our common witness to the truth of the "Ten Commandments", the Decalogue, as a solid foundation and source of life for our society, which is so disoriented by an extreme pluralism of choice and direction, and marked by .a relativism which leads to the loss of sure and solid points of reference". On the occasion of the commemoration of the deportation of Jews of Rome 16 October 2013, the Holy Father sent a message in which he expressed his spiritual closeness to the Jewish community.

That same month, Pope Francis received a delegation from the Simon-Wiesenthal-Center, whose main offices are located in Los Angeles. The institute is highly influential in the Jewish world in the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, intolerance and discrimination against minorities in all societies. In his address to members of the delegation, the Pope again expressed the Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism, and he also reminded the delegation of the persecution which Christians are currently facing in countries where they constitute a minority: "I have reaffirmed on more than one occasion the Church's condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism. Today I wish to emphasize that the problem of intolerance must be confronted in all its forms: wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of its religious convictions or ethnic identity, the.wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected. With particular sadness I think of the sufferings, the marginalization and the very real persecutions which many Christians are undergoing in various countries. Let us combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness". And this most certainly is what Jews and Christians can do together: promote a culture of dialogue, mutual understanding and forgiveness. In this way, both communities ean become a .blessing for humanity. The dialogue with Judaism should therefore be intensified and carried out with conviction, enthusiasm, joy and imagination. Our Jewish interlocutors are naturally looking to this pontificate with great interest and with great expectations, and especially to Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the Holy Land to give fresh impetus to the dialogue with our "elder brothers".

*Secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 February 2014, page 15

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