Pope Francis: Breaking New Ground in Jewish-Catholic Relations

The Holy Father’s friendships and strong tradition of dialogue with Jewish leaders are already having an impact, building on the foundation provided by previous popes.

President Shimon Peres of Israel meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 30.
President Shimon Peres of Israel meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 30. (photo: Vatican Radio/Facebook)

NEW YORK — The bonds between Jews and Catholics have never been stronger in the Church’s 2,000-year history, but some Jewish leaders say that, with Pope Francis, the best is about to get even better.

Blessed Pope John XXIII reset Catholic-Jewish relations in the 1960s, seeking to reconcile the grievances of the past, in which Catholics had treated Jews less like beloved brothers and more like strangers — or worse, as enemies. The Church approved that outreach in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council with the document Nostra Aetate, and Popes Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI all continued efforts to deepen those relations.

But Pope Francis’ pontificate represents a new chapter of deeper understanding and friendship between Jews and Catholics.

“Pope Francis has very close personal friends from his days as cardinal who are rabbis, who are leaders in the Jewish community,” said Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress (WSJ). “The dialogue and the relationship have been unprecedented in terms of warmth and closeness.”

Rosensaft said the Pope’s relationship with Jews in Buenos Aires reveals “a totally new model that we’ve never seen before.”

“The relationship is not a formal or intellectual one. But in addition to being intellectual, or symbolic, it is also heartfelt and intuitive,” he said. “That makes a tremendous difference.”


Rabbi Skorka

Few things highlight Pope Francis’ relationship with the Jews more than his deep, abiding friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. The two men started a friendship in the late 1990s with a joke over their favorite soccer teams, and they published a book in 2010 called On Heaven and Earth, revealing their interreligious dialogue on 29 different topics.

“He does what he says, and he speaks what’s on his mind and what he feels in a very direct and clear way,” Rabbi Skorka told the Register in an exclusive interview. “He’s a respectful person who respects me, really, in everything he says. He’s a lovely person, very simple and highly spiritual.”

The Pope and Rabbi Skorka made history by sharing meals and praying together during Sukkot and Sabbath at the Vatican — making Pope Francis perhaps the first bishop of Rome to do so, since St. Peter himself.

Rabbi Skorka has been in the United States sharing his experiences with Pope Francis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York on Oct. 29 and at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where he received an honorary degree.

The book co-written by Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka reveals how they feel dialogue should be conducted: by becoming acquainted with the person, viewing him as having something good to say, but not compromising one’s different identity while finding common ground together.

Rabbi Skorka said he and Pope Francis have discussed that the next step in their dialogue “will be a theological one”: what a Catholic means to a Jew and what a Jew means to a Catholic.


Francis’ Personal Touch

Rosensaft said that Pope Francis’ personal touch leaves the deepest impression. The Pope had surprised Rosensaft with a personal email, later published in The Washington Post, thanking Rosensaft for mailing him a copy of a guest sermon he had written for his synagogue about where an all-knowing and all-powerful God was present in the Holocaust.

Rosensaft is the son of two Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, or Shoah. The Nazis had killed his mother’s first husband and her young son, his brother. Rosensaft’s sermon, which Pope Francis said contained “the only possible hermeneutic interpretation,” concluded that God’s presence was “alongside and within the victims, those who perished and those who survived.”

“The idea that Pope Francis reached out to me and validated my approach is a tremendous gift,” Rosensaft said. “It is very indicative of his sensitivity to be a spiritual leader and a role model for humanity as a whole.”

Father John Crossin, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said Pope Francis’ attitude reveals his idea of a “culture of encounter,” where a person walks with others, respects them, while “sharing with others his faith and what he believes.”

“It’s how he relates to other people with respect, love and concern,” he said.

“The bigger picture is his whole thinking that we need a culture of encounter (which is more broad than just the Jewish community) with everybody — no matter what they believe in,” Father Crossin added.


Actions Accompany Words

Rosensaft said Pope Francis not only displayed this personal concern to the World Jewish Congress’ president, Ron Lauder, but has shown that actions follow his words.

He said Lauder had met with Pope Francis in September to share Jewish concerns that the Polish government was going to curtail their religious liberty by banning the kosher slaughter of animals. Rosensaft said Pope Francis thanked Lauder for bringing this to his attention and said he would see what he could do. Within a month, the Polish bishops were speaking out against the legislation, and Poland’s government has pledged to reverse the law.

“I’m quite convinced there is a direct link between the two,” Rosensaft said.

Pope Francis also proclaimed “a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” emphasizing how much Jews and Catholics have a “common root” and share much as a consequence. Rosensaft saw Pope Francis’ commitment to these words also fulfilled in the Vatican’s refusal last month to give Nazi war criminal and Holocaust-denier Erich Priebke a public Church funeral.

Priebke — who spent nearly 50 years in the Holy Father’s native Argentina after escaping in 1946 from a British prison camp — had never publicly repented of his role in the murder of Jews and Italian civilians, following his extradition to Italy in 1996 and his subsequent conviction and sentence of life imprisonment for his war crimes. The breakaway Society of St. Pius X subsequently offered to give Priebke the requiem Mass his lawyer wanted — the day before the 70th anniversary of the Nazi roundup of 1,000 Roman Jews sent to die in Auschwitz — but an outraged mob blocked the casket from ever entering the SSPX chapel in the Albano Laziale suburb, and local authorities canceled the funeral.

Gary Krupp, a Jewish leader who runs the Pave the Way Foundation, said Pope Francis’ treatment of the unrepentant Priebke was consistent with the actions taken by Pius XII against unrepentant Nazis.

“No priest was allowed to officiate at their funerals,” he said.


Pius XII’s Legacy

Krupp said he believed Pope Francis will also be the pope to draw Jews and Catholics even closer together by vindicating the legacy of Pope Pius XII.

The subject of Pius XII is sensitive for many Jews. Rabbi Skorka told the Register that both his mother’s and father’s families lost many family members during the Holocaust, and he himself questions why Pius XII did not publically denounce Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. However, he said that revealing the Vatican Secret Archives will be key.

“From my first perception — take into account that I lost the main part of my mother’s family and my father’s family during the Shoah — my first feeling is: How can it be that [Pius XII] did not shout out his criticisms of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews?” Rabbi Skorka said. “But let us have the documents do the talking.”

Krupp said he himself grew up hating Pius XII intensely, until his own research convinced him 180 degrees in the opposite direction. His own organization has documented more than 76,000 pages pointing to Pius XII as the man most responsible for “saving 80% of the Jews in Italy.”

Krupp said opening the Secret Archives will be decisive and that Pope Francis — whom he described as “very pro-Pius XII” — is eager to see them opened at last. Krupp said the cataloging of the Secret Archives is in the final stages.

“Pius XII is going to wind up being the greatest hero of World War II,” Krupp predicted. “We’re going to find that the Jewish world was very lucky to have this man as pope during World War II.”


Embracing in Israel, Forging the Future

Pope Francis intends to visit the Holy Land next spring, and with him will be his longtime friend Rabbi Skorka. The two leaders plan to embrace each other in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and will go together to Bethlehem, in the Palestinian territories, to visit Jesus’ birthplace.

But the gesture could also send a very powerful message for dialogue and peace for not only Israel and Palestine, but for the whole Middle East, which has been the epicenter of so much violence and conflict.

“That will have a very positive effect on the region,” said Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, North America.

Ehrenberg said she is looking forward to the deepening of cooperation between Catholics and Jews that Pope Francis has been encouraging by word and example. She said the recent summit between Jewish and Catholic leaders in Madrid, and the joint declaration they signed, reflected that.

“We need to speak up together” in addressing common challenges, including religious freedom, she said. “Both of us are also seeing a falloff in the commitment of youth in religious traditions and religious observation.”

Ehrenberg said, “I think Pope Francis will provide leadership here and have a powerful influence, because of his openness and courageousness in addressing these realities.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.