OMAHA, Neb. (JTA) — Before immigrating to the United States from Argentina, I was invited several times on national public holidays to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires for Catholic Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. As a gesture of inclusiveness, the group of approximately 25 clergy from various faiths was invited to sit close to the altar.
In listening to the cardinal’s sermons, I appreciated the many times when he spoke out against injustice, corruption, social inequality, human trafficking and his commitment to building a better society. As a rabbi who is very involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I followed his words with great interest.
Argentinians hold varying opinions about the new pope regarding some controversial issues, but many would agree that during his tenure as head of the Argentina Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio always promoted interfaith dialogue. He enjoys a good relationship with the Jewish community in Argentina and has been the guest of several synagogues, as well as other Jewish organizations.
The election of a new pope is an important event for the Roman Catholic Church. As the largest Christian denomination in the world with an estimated 1.2 billion members, it is relevant for others, too — particularly for the Jewish people.
After the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, the Catholic and Protestant churches realized that something was wrong with their teachings about Jews and Judaism because the Holocaust did not happen in Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu countries; it happened in Christian countries. Consequently, the churches began to re-evaluate their historically negative position toward Jews and Judaism.
In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated the historic Declaration On The Relations of the Church To Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate. The document laid the foundation on which important declarations, documents and actions were built.
But with the election of a new pope, the question arises in many minds: Will Pope Francis follow in the steps of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? I am hopeful he will.
In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio visited the AMIA, an organization in Buenos Aires dedicated to fostering the well-being and development of Jewish life, helping the poor and unemployed, and supporting Jewish education. The AMIA experienced a devastating terrorist attack in 1994 in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured.
During his visit, the cardinal said a prayer in the courtyard in front of a memorial with the names of the 85 fatalities, then placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial. Invited to sign the book of illustrious guests, he wrote — paraphrasing God’s words to Abraham after the test of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:17) — "As the sands on the seashore will be your descendants, I thank the Lord that on this day I am allowed to share part of the way with our older brothers."
Bergoglio also said that AMIA is "an example to imitate of work for the common good, a house of solidarity, and a place that evokes in us a history of blood and pain, another link of pain that God’s chosen people has been to throughout history."
The cardinal is well known as a humble man who uses public transportation in the city and cooks his own meals. He displayed his modest nature at the end of the visit to the AMIA, when the center’s secretary offered to accompany him to his car. When Cardinal Bergoglio replied that he did not have a car, he was told that a cab would be called for him. The cardinal’s response was,"No thanks, I will take the subway."
For several years, B’nai B’rith and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires organized a Jewish-Christian commemoration of Kristallnach, "the Night of Broken Glass" — the Nazis’ state-sanctioned riots against the Jewish community of Germany in November 1938. The commemorations took place at various Catholic churches, including twice at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, the last time in November 2012.
The commemoration began with the reading of "From Death to Hope: Liturgical Reflections on the Holocaust,” co-edited by the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a native Argentinian who was director of interfaith affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, and Eugene Fisher, associate director and secretary for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In his speech at the commemoration, the cardinal noted that during World War II, many pretended not to notice what was happening to the Jews. Not only did individuals ignore people in the extermination camps, he said, but entire countries ignored them even though they had the means to help.
As an example, he cited countries that were capable of accessing the extermination camps but did not dare to bomb them. He added, "I apologize for this sin of ignoring our own flesh, which is that of our brothers."
Pope Francis is particularly close to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary (the rabbinical seminary of the Conservative movement) and senior rabbi of the Benei Tikva synagogue in Buenos Aires. Together they published a book, "On Heaven and Earth," which chronicles hundreds of hours of their conversations about God, fundamentalism, death, women, abortion, education, globalization, the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other topics.
The book, as well as others written by Bergoglio, will likely become best-sellers now. And as a bonus, those who read "On Heaven and Earth" will be introduced to Jewish perspectives and thus will have the opportunity to learn about Judaism.
In the book’s introduction, Bergoglio offered his point of view regarding interfaith relationships.
"Dialogue is born of an attitude of respect for another person, and a conviction that the other has something good to say; it assumes to make room in our hearts for his point of view, for his opinions and his suggestions," he wrote. "Dialogue involves a warm welcome, not condemnation. To dialogue, one must lower defenses, open doors and provide human warmth."
Bergoglio described his friendship with the rabbi and their joint preparation of the book, saying, "With Skorka I didn’t ever have to compromise my Catholic identity, just as he did not with his Jewish identity. This was not only because of the respect we have for each other, but also because this is what we consider interreligious dialogue."
He added, "I consider Skorka a brother and a friend.”
The two clergy also host a television program for a local Catholic channel in which they discuss topics from the perspectives of each religion. Recently, Argentina Catholic University in Buenos Aires awarded Rabbi Skorka an honorary doctorate, and the cardinal presented it to him.
Those of us who know Pope Francis are confident that in his new position, he will continue in the steps of his two predecessors, and the dialogue and friendship between Catholics and Jews will continue.
(Mordechai Levin is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Neb.)