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Pope Francis and the Argentine Rabbi

April 26, 2013 3:09 pm 8 comments

Pope Francis appears to the public for the first time as pope at the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, March 13, 2013. Photo: Tenan/Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first things Argentinian native Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did after being elected pope on March 13 was to send a message of friendship to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni — and, by extension, the Jewish people.

“I sincerely hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council,” wrote Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis.

By inviting Rome’s rabbi to the papal installation at the Vatican, Pope Francis said he hoped to contribute to “a spirit of renewed collaboration” with the Jewish people.

Indeed, since being elected the head of the Roman Catholic Church last month, Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world press, with headlines touting his acts of humility resulting in high approval ratings around the globe. This includes the world Jewish community, where he has garnered accolades for his positive history with the Argentine Jewish community.

On March 19, I sat next to Rabbi Di Segni under a warm Italian sun in St. Peter’s Square as part of a small Jewish delegation invited to observe the remarkable religious ceremony that officially installed the new spiritual leader for the world’s billion-plus Roman Catholics. Pope Francis, 76, was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the world in February by announcing his resignation — the first pope to do so in more than 600 years.

During his installation, Pope Francis singled out the Jewish delegation in the audience from among the other non-Christian representatives in thanking them for coming. The next day Pope Francis invited our Jewish delegation, as well as representatives of other faith groups — including Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Protestants, Evangelicals and Hindus and Sikhs, to meet with him at the Vatican.

Francis specifically mentioned his church’s close relationship with the Jewish people during his opening address, where he said:

“And now I turn to you distinguished representatives of the Jewish people, to which we are joined in a very special spiritual bond, since, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, the Church of Christ acknowledges that ‘the beginnings of her faith and her election are already, according to the divine mystery of salvation, in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets. Thank you for your presence, and I am confident that, with the help of the Almighty, we will be able to continue profitably that fraternal dialogue that the Council advocated and that has actually been accomplished, bringing many fruits, especially in recent decades.”

In one sense, these words are extraordinary coming from a new pope. But in another sense, Pope Francis’ warm outreach to the Jewish people is wholly consistent with the many gestures, words and acts of friendship from his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

It is consistent with the positive path of reconciliation taking place between Jews and Catholics since the Second Vatican Council in 1965 approved the declaration called Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) states that Jews remain most dear to God, acknowledges the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people made at Mt. Sinai, rejects anti-Semitism at any time by anyone as contrary to Christianity and declares that Jews were never collectively cursed by God for the death of Jesus.

Francis’ outreach to Jews also comes as no surprise for those who had followed his career as Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, where he celebrated various Jewish holidays with the Argentine Jewish community, including Chanukah, where he lit a candle on the menorah, attended a Buenos Aires synagogue for Slichot, a pre-Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) service, as well as a commemoration of Kristallnacht, the wave of violent Nazi attacks against Jews before World War II.

He also expressed strong solidarity with Argentina’s Jewish community following the deadly 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center. In 2010, during a commemoration of the tragedy, Cardinal Bergoglio called the site “a house of solidarity.”

We at ADL know Cardinal Bergoglio’s graciousness from a personal perspective. He corresponded with our late Interfaith Director Rabbi Leon Klenicki, an Argentine and a pioneer in Catholic-Jewish relations, and he attended a memorial service for Rabbi Klenicki in Buenos Aires in 2009.

Indeed, Pope Francis’ close relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people is perhaps best exemplified in a remarkable book he wrote with the Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

The book, “On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century,” which has just been translated into English for the first time, is being published on April 19 by Image Books.

The book will be released simultaneously in print, digital, and audio formats in the U.S. and Canada. A Spanish-language edition, titled Sobre el Cielo y la Terra, will also be issued in the United States and Canada by Vintage Español, also a Random House Inc. imprint, in print and digital formats.

The Anti-Defamation League is proud to have played a role in bringing the book to the English speaking world.

“On Heaven and Earth” captures a series of fascinating conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka on a wide range of issues important to both people of religion, and of no religion.

The cardinal and the rabbi discuss such important subjects such as the nature of God, fundamentalism, the Holocaust, science, politics, globalization, poverty, interfaith dialogue, and future of religion.

They also tackle controversial issues including same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

Whether or not one agrees with the positions taken by Cardinal Bergoglio on these issues, the book offers an unprecedented insight into the thinking of the man who now leads the Catholic Church and is arguably the most influential religious figure on Earth.

One can see throughout their dialogue how the cardinal and the rabbi show each other great respect and affection. Some of the exchanges are quite touching.

Equally as important, both maintain their personal religious integrity while grappling with profound issues. As Cardinal Bergoglio says: “With [Rabbi] Skorka I never had to leave my Catholic identity behind, just as he didn’t have to ignore his Jewish identity. Our challenge was to proceed with respect and affection, trying to be above reproach as we walked in the presence of God.”

Indeed, this book serves as a wonderful model for honest and productive interfaith dialogue.

In the coming months Catholic and Jewish leaders will begin discussing preparations for the 50th anniversary commemoration ofNostra Aetate. We believe it is extremely important that this event is given the greatest attention and is properly celebrated throughout the world, acknowledging the document’s historic role in fostering positive interfaith relations.

Given what Pope Francis has already achieved, we are confident we will be climbing together towards the next level of positive dialogue between Catholic and Jews.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.


  • The Jews have treated other people quite horrifically throughout history, but are always screaming about existential threats from one source or another. If Jews don’t want to face threats, they need to stop the Palestinian genocide in Israel and Muslim-bashing in the corporate Jew-controlled U.S. The Eratz Israel plan to expand borders to the Euphrates–all based on Jewish supremacists propaganda in the Bible, and believe me, it’s all propaganda.

  • Joel, but millions of Gentiles who believe in, and worship Jesus have also suffered and died painful deaths. Are Christians also suffering from violating the Mosaic covenant, and for their ‘belief’ in Jesus?

    To proceed, much can be achieved, especially in an atmosphere of respect and conviviality. The Church(es)actually have a lot of amends to make, and they can contribute to healing the world by opening up that they were wrong to have ‘converted’ people who were not Christians and did not solicit to be converted. For example my people the Igbos.

  • The Pope is incorrect in calling the Mosaic Covenant “eternal”. It was a conditional covenant that the Jewish people violated and thus suffered just as the conditions of the covenant required.

    While we can agree that the Jewish people are not collectively guilty for the illegal trial and judicial murder of Christ (Jews and Gentiles conspired together), as individuals, all Jews and Gentiles, are under God’s judgment. Since the Jewish people have continually violated the Mosaic Covenant, the only Covenant by which God will receive any of us is the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33 and Ezekiel 36:26-27), which is the only true Everlasting (Eternal) Covenant.

    • Joel,

      If one takes your opening statement at face value, it follows that you believe that the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children was somehow justified because they violated the covenant. So my question to you is how did the 1.5 million babies and children guilty of violating the covenant? Why were these innocents guilty? Even if one were to accept your twisted concept of G-d’s retribution, are you saying that G-d punished the babies and children along with their parents?

  • He speaks hypocritically. Until he repudiates “no salvation outside the Church” and stops the sainthood of Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope (see, it is all just window dressing.

    • Christians seem to forget that Jesus forgave the Jews while on the cross. The second coming of Christ will be for all the Jews returning to Israel. They will see Christ and will except Him as their savior. The Catholic church has a lot to answer for, just like the Pharisees but I think this pope will do everything in his power to right the wrongs

  • James Walden

    I’m not Catholic but find have great respect For Pope Francis. I also have great respect for my Jewish Friends & Israel, so really glad to see the relationship between the two Religions. I’m Lutheran so close to the Catholic Church in many ideas. i wish the best for all.

  • While the Jewish people are facing existential threats throught the globe by Muslims who revere the sociopath Muhammad who personally decapitatted 900 unarmed Jews at Quarayza…the old dhimmi Abe foxman is writing inconsequential stories about the pope and a south American rabbi…way to go Abe!

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