The Rabbi and Pope Francis
In an exclusive Register interview, Rabbi Abraham Skorka shares his friendship with Pope Francis that is ushering in a new chapter in Jewish-Catholic relations.
NEW YORK — “I am Joseph, your brother” — with those words Pope John XXIII ushered in a new era of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
But with the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s document on relations with non-Christian religions, just around the corner, Catholics and Jews are poised to make major strides in their relationship, thanks to Pope Francis and his steadfast friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and the Jews of Argentina.
Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis have been friends since 1997, after the Holy Father became Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. Their friendship began when Archbishop Bergoglio ribbed Rabbi Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, about their rival soccer teams. From this friendship, they started an interreligious dialogue that later resulted in a book called On Heaven and Earth, which covers a myriad of topics.
Few images show Catholics and Jews together as brothers more than Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka.
The Register spoke with Rabbi Skorka after he gave an Oct. 29 talk on Pope Francis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Skorka shared his history with Pope Francis, the importance of dialogue to peace, and also the next step for Jews and Christians that he and Pope Francis are discussing.
Rabbi Skorka, how did your friendship with Pope Francis begin?
There is an anecdote that I’ve told several times. He made a joke with me regarding our soccer sympathies after a Te Deum [at the cathedral] in honor of one of our independence days. He’s a fan of the San Lorenzo soccer team, and I follow the River Plate, another soccer team in Argentina. [In this encounter, Archbishop Bergoglio joked that his team was going to eat “chicken soup” that year — “chickens” being a nickname for the River Plate team].
When he made the joke with me, I understood that his intention was to tell me, “Look, we are on the same level. I open the doors of my archbishop’s office to you, so we can work together.” That was the simple message I saw behind the joke.
What inspired you to enter into a dialogue with Pope Francis during his time in Buenos Aires? You both ended up publishing a book of your dialogue in 2010 called On Heaven and Earth.
That is a long story. What inspired me was that I found him a very sincere and transparent person. He does what he says, and he speaks what’s on his mind and what he feels in a very direct and clear way. He’s a respectful person who respects me, really, in everything he says. He’s a lovely person, very simple and highly spiritual. And in this way, a very big friendship was constructed between us.
Is there a particular memory you have that shows what kind of man Pope Francis is?
A year ago, on Oct. 11, 2012, as archbishop of Buenos Aires and chancellor of the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina [Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina], he bestowed on me an honorary doctorate on the occasion of the celebration of the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. It was the first time in all of Latin America that a Catholic university gave such an honor to a Jewish rabbi, especially for an Argentinian Catholic university, which traditionally wasn’t close to or sympathetic to Jews. Undoubtedly, he was the person who inspired the others to go ahead with this project. Just before he gave me this diploma, we were standing, one in front of the other, for a few seconds, when he told me, “You cannot imagine how long I have dreamt of this moment.”
That moment, before thousands of people, was such a very special act. It honored the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, which are so important for Bergoglio and for all those who have tried to make a change in the history of the Catholic Church. I remember this moment very, very well. It was also a very important moment in the history of this university, which is very important to Argentina.
What is a more recent memory of him as Pope Francis?
Just a few weeks ago, around the beginning of this October, I spent some time in Santa Marta [the Pope’s home at the Vatican]. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together. But I had to say my special blessings, because of two festivals and Shabbat. At the same table, I was sitting on [Pope Francis’] right and said, “Look, I have to have special kosher wine and special bread,” and he turned to me and said, “Say what you have to say, and do what you have to do.” So he, his secretary and I stood around the table while I recited the prayers.
Here, we were really brothers from different religions, but with the same respect, love and consideration for each other.
How did your dialogue with Pope Francis as archbishop bring Catholics and Jews closer together in Argentina?
We try to instill not only for Jews and Catholics in Argentina, but also for Argentine society at large, the importance of dialogue. I don’t know how much dialogue is a reality in U.S. society, but in Argentina, a deep sense of dialogue is not instilled. In Argentina, we don’t know exactly what it means to dialogue: to hear what the other is trying to tell me. So this was one of our first attempts. Of course, our intention was to build up bridges between Jews and Catholics as well.
What is the next step in your dialogue with Pope Francis?
The next step is the question of how Catholics are related to the Jewish people.
You mean clarifying the relationship of Catholics to the Jews, the people of Israel?
Yes, what we have to do in the next step is exactly what you are saying: We must clarify what the Jew means for Catholics (or Christians at large) and what a Christian means to a Jew. How are we related? What, really, does one mean to the other: the Jew for the Catholic and the Catholic for the Jew? That is the point we are working on.
Now, I asked [Pope Francis] about this. I told him that, when I’m in the United States, they’re going to ask me about the next step in our dialogue. So he very clearly and directly told me, “Our next step must be a theological one.”
That is very exciting news!
I would like to add something here. It is very easy to see this, share a cup of tea and say, “We are very good friends.” But a particular point of our friendship is that we have total confidence in one another to speak directly and without any suspicion. We have an understanding, one to the other, of what is going on, what really one feels and how much one can give or offer to the other.
Have you and Pope Francis discussed Pope Pius XII?
In the book [On Heaven and Earth] you can discover, exactly, his opinion on Pius XII. The Pope’s answer as archbishop was very clear: We must continue searching in order to know the truth, and the truth will enlighten us.
What are your thoughts on Pius XII?
It is very, very important to know the truth. I understand that in the future [Pope Francis] will open the [Vatican Secret] Archives to be analyzed. 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? But let us have the documents do the talking.
You and Pope Francis are planning to go to Israel in the spring. Where do you intend to go?
Our dream is to visit many places, of course. But specifically, we will go to the Kotel [the Wailing Wall], and I would like to accompany him to Bethlehem.
What message do you hope to send in Israel?
The message of peace: that dialogue is the way, and war is not the way. That we have to do more ourselves in order to instill dialogue in the world. Dialogue must begin with ourselves and continue to the other. But the idea is also to dialogue with G-d and to maintain a dialogue with G-d.
He and I are convinced, totally, that dialogue is the barrier against war. When human beings dialogue, you are paving the way to avoid the confrontation of war.
When do you plan on seeing Pope Francis next?
Well, I don’t know how often I’ll get to see him. But with G-d’s will, I am hoping to see him by the middle of next January.
Thank you so much for sharing your friendship with Pope Francis, Rabbi Skorka. Ultimately, what do you hope Pope Francis and your dialogue can do for the world?
What I wish for my friend is that he becomes more and more the moral leader and moral reference for the world. And for that end, through my dialogue and our friendship, I will do my utmost.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.