Pope Francis and the Jewish People: The First Year

By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
Published by The Times of Israel – March 14, 2014

One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis continues to show his commitment to Jewish-Catholic relations.  He has welcomed to the Vatican six Jewish delegations, as well as Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary and senior rabbi of the Benei Tikva Synagogue. He wrote about his respect for the Jewish faith in an Italian newspaper article, as well as in his first Apostolic Exhortation; he also remembered Kristallnacht after one of his Sunday addresses.

When he met with President Peres in March 2013, they discussed the political and social situation in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Pope Francis denounced anti-Semitism, which he said went against Christian beliefs, and he accepted Peres’ invitation to visit Israel.

Rabbi Skorka shared lunch with the pope in Rome last June, when the rabbi was invited by the Sant’ Egidio community to participate in its annual international interreligious meeting. The men have enjoyed a long friendship: before being named pope, the then-cardinal and the rabbi participated in an issue-based television program in Argentina; and together, they published a book, On Heaven and Earth.

Also last June, Francis welcomed to the Vatican the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC). This meeting marked the first time he met with an official group of representatives of Jewish organizations and communities. In his address to the group, the pope referenced the Declaration Nostra Aetate as a key turning point regarding relations between Catholics and the Jewish people, saying, “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”  He also recalled his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in which he enjoyed meaningful friendships with leaders of the Jewish community

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder and some WJC members met with Francis in September. The pope called for greater dialogue among the world’s religious communities and opposed fundamentalism in any faith.  He wished Jews around the world a sweet and peaceful year, and asked Lauder to convey his New Year message to Jewish communities around the world.

In his response last September to an article by Eugenio Scalfari in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Francis wrote that “God has never neglected his faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, and that, through the awful trials of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we, the Church and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them.”

During the same month, Rabbi Skorka once again visited the pope, staying at the Vatican guesthouse Santa Marta for several days, which included the holiday of Simchat Torah, and Shabbat. The men shared breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Francis himself made sure that the rabbi’s meals were kosher.

In October, Francis met with a delegation from the Jewish community in Rome.  While discussing the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews of Rome, he said, “It will also be an occasion to heighten our attention and be watchful so that forms of intolerance and anti-Semitism do not recur under any pretext, here in Rome and in the rest of the world. I have said it on other occasions and I would like to repeat it now: it is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are a bit Jewish. A Christian cannot be an anti-Semite! May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and life of every man and every woman!”

While addressing a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center last October, Francis spoke about making sure that the next generation understands the importance of Catholic-Jewish relations. He said, “We must be able to transmit to them not only knowledge about Jewish-Catholic dialogue, about the difficulties overcome and the progress made in recent decades; we must, above all, be able to transmit to them our passion for encounter and knowledge of the other, promoting the active and responsible involvement of young people.”

Last November, following his Sunday address in St. Peter’s Square, the pope spoke about the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  He said to those assembled, “We renew our closeness and solidarity with the Jewish people, our older big brothers. And we pray to God that the memory of the past, the memory of past sins, helps us to be ever vigilant against any form of hate and intolerance.”

During the same month, Pope Francis issued his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a 224-page document outlining the pope’s vision for the Church.  The document included a section regarding Catholics’ relationship with Judaism.  The text states that, “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked… The Church … looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity.”

The document also cites the present friendship and the painful past, saying, “The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.”

Evangelii Gaudium also included the following words of appreciation: “God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism.”

In December, Pope Francis met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, and the expected visit to Israel.

The pope received a 15-member delegation from Argentina’s Jewish community this past January. The group was headed by Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Jewish Latin American Congress, DAIA president Julio Schlosser, and Rabbi Skorka. Francis greeted his guests by saying, “I welcome you and I hope this gathering will help grow what we sow together.” Their meeting and lunch lasted two-and-a-half hours, the longest meeting with any Jewish group.

The pope and his guests ate a meal catered by the kosher restaurant Ba’Ghetto.  After the meal, the Jewish delegation sang the well-known Hebrew words, “Hine ma tov uma naim, shevet achim gam yahad” (Psalm 133), which means, “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.”

In February, Francis welcomed representatives from the American Jewish Committee.  He told the group that in addition to dialogue, it is essential to find ways in which Jews and Christians can collaborate in constructing a more just and fraternal world.

Repeating what he said to the Wiesenthal delegation, the pope stressed the importance of transmitting to new generations the mutual knowledge and friendship which has grown between Jews and Catholics over the years. “It is my hope therefore,” he said, “that the study of relations with Judaism may continue to flourish in seminaries and in centers of formation for lay Catholics, as I am similarly hopeful that a desire for an understanding of Christianity may grow among young Rabbis and the Jewish community.”

Referring to his planned trip to Israel, Francis concluded his address, saying, “In a few months I will have the joy of visiting Jerusalem, where – as the Psalm says – we are all born and where all peoples will one day meet. Accompany me with your prayers, so that this pilgrimage may bring forth the fruits of communion, hope and peace. Shalom!”

It was a positive first year.  Even though there were no groundbreaking Vatican documents or actions taken, there were frequent and genuine demonstrations of friendship.  And who could have imagined only a few years ago that a pope would share meals with a rabbi over the course of several days, or a lengthy lunch with Jewish leaders at the Vatican?

I am hopeful that the Jewish-Catholic relations will continue to flourish under Pope Francis.


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Rabbi Levin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Munster, IN. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for his years of dedicated service to the Conservative movement and the Jewish community...Full bio