Cardinal Justin Rigali's responsibilities extended far beyond the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and it wasn't uncommon for him to fly to Vatican City twice in a month.
So the fact that he attended many of the meetings of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia — which the cardinal helped launch in 2006 — spoke volumes about his commitment to interfaith dialogue, said Rabbi David Straus, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"The cardinal has personally been very committed to it," Straus said, referring to the 27-member body, which is currently working with the mayor's office to plan a memorial service to commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks.
Straus described Rigali as a truly spiritual person who treated religious leaders from other faiths as equals. "I personally feel very blessed. We have had a good relationship."
This week, Rigali announced that, after eight years, he was stepping down as head of the archdiocese. Pope Benedict XVI has named Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver — who has at times been outspoken about political issues such as abortion — as Rigali's successor.
Several sources within the Jewish community said the change in leadership should have little impact on Jewish-Catholic relations in the area, which have grown warmer in the nearly 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. In particular, the document Nostre Aetate officially reversed 2,000 years of church doctrine regarding Jews and paved the way for increased engagement with the Jewish community.
But there's been renewed friction in recent years, particularly regarding Benedict's reinsertion of a reference to Jewish conversion into the traditional Good Friday prayer. Straus said Rigali had been very open to discussing this and other thorny issues.
One source familiar with the workings of the Catholic Church said that neither Rigali nor Chaput has placed a particularly high priority on Jewish-Catholic dialogue, in part because they have faced internal problems such as the closing of churches and schools. In addition, Rigali has been criticized for his response to allegations of sexual abuse involving area priests.
In the past year, he appeared at two major Jewish events. Last summer, he addressed leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and fielded questions about Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
In the spring, Rigali spoke at an American Jewish Committee dinner honoring Penn State University's legendary football coach, Joe Paterno.
A 'Deep' Relationship
Thomas Tropp, president of the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey office, said the Jewish ties with the archdiocese now run so deep that "the relationship is not contingent alone on who the cardinal is."
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he'd had a meeting with Rigali when the cardinal first arrived in Philadelphia, but for the most part, ADL's work with the archdiocese happens with officials who are on lower rungs of the hierarchy. Morrison sited as an example the Bearing Witness program, which is geared for Catholic educators that focuses on the Holocaust.
"His presence was not felt directly," said Morrison. "He didn't cover any new ground, he didn't touch on controversial subjects, he allowed the good work to continue that has been the hallmark of this archdiocese for a good number of years."
Morrison and others said they didn't know much about Chaput but are looking forward to meeting him and working with him.
Msgr. Michael Carroll, director of the archdiocese office of ecumenical and interligious affairs, said it is difficult to predict what kind of stamp Chaput will place on Jewish-Catholic relations.
"He's a different person, Cardinal Rigali came out of the diplomatic corps" while Chaput has been known at times to speak more bluntly.
Carroll said Chaput will have much on his plate running an archdiocese with twice as Catholics as his previous post, and Jewish-Catholic relations probably won't be near the top of his priorities — at least at first.
"He's going to have a learning curve. At the beginning, I don't think you will be able to judge," he said. I don't anticipate a lack of support for our work. We've engaged so well and so nicely together for so many years."
Chaput, a native American, is considered a conservative who has waded into the political arena, particularly with his opposition to abortion. He was also, according to one source, one of the few Catholic leaders in the United States who encouraged parishioners to see Mel Gibson's controversial movie, "The Passion of the Christ."
Chris Leppek, assistant editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, said Chaput did not engage with the Jewish community to the same extent that his predecessors had.
"He was focused inwardly on the church," said Leppek, who interviewed him several times. "He walked a fine line between church and politics frequently."
Leppek described Chaput as knowledgeable about Jewish affairs. He said he'd tried on several occasions to get the archbishop to comment on Israel or the Middle East conflict and he always declined, citing diplomatic concerns.
But Kendra Shore, associate director of the American Jewish Committee office in Denver, said the archbishop's office was always accessible.
When "The Passion of the Christ" came out, she said, Chaput spoke to a joint Jewish-Catholic audience about the history of anti-Semitism.
"He heard our concerns and tried to do something about it," said Shore, adding that AJC has worked with the local archdiocese on issues related to immigration reform.
Shore noted that she might not have been able to pick up the phone and call Chaput but she could always bring her concerns to one of his deputies.
"You don't necessarily need his ear to have his ear," she said. "We definitely really enjoy the relationship that we have with him. It's been very open and I'm going to miss him for sure and wish him the best."