Pope Francis and the Jews: the first six months

La Stampa

Ever since the Second Vatican Council brought to the forefront of the Catholic conscience its ineradicable fraternal relationship with Judaism and the Jewish People, each subsequent papacy has nourished this awareness with words and deeds.

John XXIII was the driving force behind the creation of a Vatican II “document on the Jews” that evolved into much wider interreligious and ecumenic application, “Nostra Aetate”.

As Papal Nuncio in France, Bulgaria and Greece, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had experienced the horrors of the Shoah and acted to save Jewish lives. His historic encounter in 1960 with the Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor, Jules Isaac – who presented John XXIII with his manuscript on “The teaching of contempt: Christian roots of anti-Semitism” – strongly reinforced the Pope’s determination to cancel the infamous accusation of “deicide” and by a new focus on the brotherly roots of the two religions, permanently change the course of Catholic-Jewish relations. “Nostra Aetate” was the outcome and has become the premise for all subsequent steps towards reconciliation.

Mutual respect for the other’s religious identity has – though sometimes with difficulties – been maintained as a cornerstone for this evolving history. The Church’s attempts to convert Jews in past centuries, with repeated recourse to humiliation, brute force and persecution throughout Europe, were permanently overturned by this new document.

In barely a half year into his papacy, Pope Jorge Maria Bergoglio has already won the hearts and minds of many skeptical Jewish religious leaders.

Dr. Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome known for his very cautious attitude toward interreligious dialogue and his insistence on mutually recognized limits, said, “This Pontiff does not cease to surprise.” He noted that while Francis’ words are not new but, rather, inherent to Christianity as confirmed by Vatican II, “It is the force with which he expresses them and his capacity of communicating them that is astounding.”

He was referring to an article written by the Pope in which Francis declared that “since the Second Vatican Council we have rediscovered that the Jewish People are still for us the holy root that produced Jesus”. He also stated that despite the horrors inflicted on the Jewish People by the Shoah, “God never abandoned his covenant with Israel, and notwithstanding their terrible suffering over the centuries, the Jewish People have kept their faith. For this, we will never be sufficiently grateful to them as a Church, but also as human beings. In the persistence of their faith in the God of the Covenant, they summon all, including us as Christians, to recall the fact that we are awaiting the return of the Lord as pilgrims, and must therefore always remain open to Him and never retreat from what we have already achieved.”

During his first official meeting with Jewish leaders represented by a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) last July, Francis said, “Because of our common roots, a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic.”

In keeping with his informal, iconoclastic style, the Pope walked in, unannounced, causing a stir among the delegates milling around the room. Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director for Interreligious Relations in the U.S., later summed up the general reaction. “Pope Francis is unassuming, unscripted, warm. It is a religious experience to be in his presence”.

INTERVIEW WITH RABBI DAVID ROSEN:

An in-depth conversation with Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, reveals the essential traits of Pope Francis that are winning worldwide Jewish support and hopes for what the future could bring.

“There has never been a Pope with as deep an understanding of Jews as Pope Francis” states Rabbi Rosen candidly. “Of course Pope John Paul II had a unique childhood experience of the Jewish community in Wadowice. But by the time he was a priest, there was little living community left to talk of, so his engagement was not as a developed adult.

Francis, on the other hand, has not only nurtured lifelong friendships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, with whom he has had “a vibrant interaction”, says Rabbi Rosen, but has co-authored a book with an Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka, “thus addressing issues face to face with Jewish self-understanding and experience. This profoundly shapes his sensitivity and his commitment to the Jewish-Christian relationship.”

Rabbi Rosen points to Pope Francis’ “remarkable capacity to communicate his profound humanity in simple and sincere gestures.

Comparing the communicative genius of Pope Wojtyla with that of Pope Bergoglio, Rosen says, “John Paul II was a master of dramatic gestures but these were often novel and challenging. Francis’ brilliance”, he continues, “lies precisely in his simplicity – which paradoxically has a dramatic impact and has endeared him to the world.”

David Rosen notes that “the Jewish response has been remarkably warm.

In substance”, says AJC’s Interreligious Director, “he is the self-same continuity of his predecessors. However he has also built upon his predecessors in relation to the Jewish People.

Benedict XVI was the first to invite Jews to attend his Papal installation and the Jewish presence at Francis’ inauguration was even more significant and extensive.

“His public comments to the Jewish representatives at his inauguration, his letters to the Chief Rabbis of Rome and of Israel, his reference to Jewish historic commitment and triumph over persecution in his media interviews – all have deeply impressed Jews worldwide and in Israel that Pope Francis is a profoundly genuine friend of the Jewish People.

Asked what he sees as the main avenues for a revitalized cooperation between Jews and Catholics now and in the future, Rabbi Rosen observes that while the major theological issues of the past have been mainly addressed, and although the discussion can never be exhausted, the Jewish side is now focused on practical things to be accomplished together.

“Above all there is an enormous educational challenge” says Rabbi Rosen.

“While the teaching of the Magisterium towards Jews, Judaism, and Israel are overwhelmingly positive, there are many parts of the Catholic world where pre-Conciliar attitudes still prevail and where anti-Judaism if not anti-Semitism is still to be found. This is especially so in many parts of Latin America where, other than in the main cities of Argentina and Brazil, Jews often hardly feature at all on the ‘Catholic radar screen’.

“Surely here a Latin American Pope can play a very special role and exert initiative.

“Remarkably, the teaching of Nostra Aetate and of the Magisterium following on therefrom are not an obligatory part of the syllabus for the formation of priests everywhere. Addressing this should be a minimal educational responsibility on the part of the Church to its own teachings – not to mention how Jesus and his contemporary Jewish brothers, followers and opponents are presented (or not presented) in sermons in many places especially at Easter time. The Church could do so much in educational terms.

There is of course a parallel challenge on the Jewish side, but it is not a symmetrical one and Jewish approach has and is changing in response.

“However the onus is first and foremost on the Christian side.

“Perhaps this is substantially a consequence of historical power, but the Church is the one here with the most terrible tragic record. It is a record that still has to be addressed. In truth, it has already been addressed, but the problem is that not everyone in the Church knows this yet!

“Beyond this specific responsibility, we have already begun to work and dialogue together on common challenges of our times – social, scientific, environmental, etc., above all, concerning the sanctity of human life and combating dehumanization in its various forms. Here there is unlimited scope to do more and more together for the benefit of humankind as a whole.”