When Pope Francis was installed almost two years ago, many Jews felt relief that the 76-year-old former archbishop of Buenos Aires was old enough to remember the Holocaust and so hew to the dramatic improvements in Catholic-Jewish relations that it set in motion.
Francis has gone one better. Not only does he subscribe to the moral lessons taught by his papal predecessors since the 1950s and the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate document repudiating the teaching that Jews killed Jesus, he embodies them.
“Francis is the first pope to have applied the revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations – Nostra Aetate — in a living, breathing community of Catholics and Jews, in Buenos Aires and in greater Argentina,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for American Jewish Committee.
As archbishop, Francis spoke out against the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, an act of terrorism that took 85 lives. He visited synagogues, attended a Rosh Hashanah service and took part in Holocaust commemorations. With his partner in interfaith dialogue, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he cohosted a TV program and wrote the book “On Heaven and Earth.”
Since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis has continued his public relationship with Skorka. The pope shared an internationally publicized interfaith embrace at the Kotel in Jerusalem with Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, during a visit to the Middle East last year.
“He has not been shy in his public embrace of the Jewish community,” said Marans, who has met with the pope twice.
“He hasn’t disappointed,” agreed Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL, who attended the pope’s installation in Rome. “He’s established a sense of warmth, tolerance and respect.” Now, added Foxman, “the relationship needs maintenance, and he’s working to maintain it.”
Pope John Paul II was perhaps the first universal pope, according to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. “He was physically everywhere.” Francis, he said, may have surpassed his predecessor’s broad appeal.
Six million people showed up to hear him lead mass in Manila on Jan. 18, Wuerl noted, breaking Pope John Paul II’s record of four million in the same venue.
“The pope has a way of speaking that transcends barriers. It resonates with people all over the world, of every faith,” said Wuerl. His influence “has to do with this style and language. I heard him speak to a crowd of 50,000 below his balcony, telling them that faith is not an add-on to your life, not icing on the cake. I could see thousands of people nodding their heads, as if to say ‘I get it. I understand the image.’ He doesn’t speak in abstractions.”
But has the pope been too much of a success? As his moral influence continues to
expand beyond the bounds of the Church, is the Jewish community losing some of its own influence?
No, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We’re not looking for him to lead [us]. We’re accepting the leadership he offers where we agree on the issue. Would I have looked to follow Martin Luther King? Would I have looked to Gandhi?”
Added Gutow: “This in no way diminishes the Jewish community’s significance in these discussions. Our ability to work closely with the pope and the Vatican should be seen as a sign of strength and also of the relationship that has been built with the current pope and with his predecessors.”
Foxman agreed: “Our ability to work closely with the pope and the Vatican should be seen as a sign of strength and also of the relationship that has been built with the current pope and with his predecessors.”
Francis has been given credit for helping secure the release in December of Alan Gross, the Jewish contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development convicted in Cuba in 2009 for “crimes against the state.”
In welcoming Gross at the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama linked his release to the pope: “As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of small steps. These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs,” the president said.
Nowhere in Obama’s remarks were the Jewish community’s efforts to free Gross mentioned. Marans said the Jewish community’s influence was felt in its relationship with the pope, for whom Gross’ release became an important humanitarian agenda item.
“We should welcome assistance from any credible source, especially the pope, particularly when it comes to life-saving matters, like the case of Alan Gross,” Marans said. “The presence of the pope in any interreligious encounter is a benefit to all, especially the dialogue partners.”
He added, “The Jewish community has invested in friendships and relationships in part so that our partners will be able to help us, as we will be able to help them with their agenda items.”