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Local Speculation on New Pope and the Jews

March 14, 2013 By:
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Newly elected Pope Francis I waves to the crowds on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, March 13, 2013. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

Theology professor Philip Cunningham was pretty sure the next pope would hail from Latin America. But like so many Vatican watchers, he didn’t have Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — on his radar.

Cunningham, who directs the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University and is a vice president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, hasn’t met the new pontiff personally and didn’t know much about him before his selection on March 13.

This is noteworthy, since Cunningham’s the one that many in the Jewish community go to for analysis of what’s happening inside the church and what it means for Catholic-Jewish ties. It underscores how much of an unknown quantity the new pope is for those in the Philadelphia area who work in interfaith relations.

But Cunningham said that he has heard from those who have worked with Bergoglio in Argentina that he’s deeply committed to interreligious dialogue. He also said that, while the new pope may not come from a country like the United States, which has a long history of Catholic-Jewish ties, it could be helpful that he’s from a Latin American country with a relatively large Jewish population.

“All the indications that I have had access to suggest that he is very much committed to Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Cunningham. “The choice of the name Francis, I think, is extremely significant.”

St. Francis of Assisi, whose name the new pope adopted, was known to be a champion of the poor and protecting the environment. Cunningham said what’s less well known about the saint is that, during the Crusades, he risked his life to speak with Muslim leaders and try to put a stop to the bloodshed.

The professor said the new pope was sure to be the hot topic at the annual Jewish-Christian seder at Saint Joseph’s, which is slated for  March 17.

Adam Gregerman, a Jewish scholar of religion who was recently appointed assistant director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Josephs, said he was reassured by the selection that the historic connection between Jews and Catholics would remain vibrant.

“The church has made a really strong commitment to maintaining relations with the Jewish community generally. I don’t expect much will change,” he said.

Rabbi David Straus, who along with local Archbishop Charles Chaput sits on the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, said that when it comes to the new pope, he only knows what he’s read in the papers — but he’s eager to discuss the matter with other clerics.

“We are all going to learn more about him in the days and weeks and months ahead,” said Straus, who is also president of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It’s a very exciting time.”

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