On the day of his election to the papacy as Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina wrote to his new neighbor, the chief rabbi of Rome: “I eagerly hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration, and in service of a world that might be more and more in harmony with the Creator’s will.”
This letter is more evidence of the growing rapport between the Catholic and Jewish communities. Arguably, a fundamental change has occurred since the days when Catholics were not allowed to attend Jewish ceremonies. Compare this with the actions of the new pope’s two immediate predecessors in visiting several synagogues or in traveling to Israel and praying at the Western Wall. Locally, the scene of Jews and Catholics exploring Exodus together by sharing in an interfaith seder, as happened March 17 at Saint Joseph’s University, would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
Pope Francis’ letter to the chief rabbi reflects the changed interreligious world in which we now live.
Given about 18 centuries of Christian hostility, it is natural for some Jews to worry each time a new pope is elected. Some Jews and Catholics have been concerned that a non-European pope, without experience of the Shoah, might see positive relations with Jews as unimportant.
Although such apprehensions are understandable, and while much work remains to be done, the past five decades have seen an irreversible sea change in the official Catholic stance toward Judaism that will shape any future pope regardless of his country of origin.
Take one example: The 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate repudiated the persistent teaching that the Jewish people had been rejected by God. Subsequently, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, all developed this essential insight further.
It is now standard Catholic teaching that anti-Semitism is a sin against God, that Jews and Christians are brothers and sisters, and that we share the covenantal duty to prepare the world for the Age to Come.
Most recently, Pope Benedict wrote that the church “must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews” and that the respective Jewish and Christian ways of interpreting the Tanach/Old Testament must dialogue with one another “if we are to understand God’s will and his word aright.”
It was in this developing post-Vatican II context that the future Pope Francis served as priest and archbishop. He is also a Jesuit, a member of the religious order of the Society of Jesus, whose governing documents stress the importance of interreligious dialogue.
As a vice president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, I have learned that the new pope is a good friend of the group’s Argentine chapter and also of the Buenos Aires Jewish community in times of both tragedy and joy. He worked closely with the leadership of the Seminario Rabbinico in Buenos Aires, including the publication of a dialogue with its rector, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, titled, Sobre El Cielo Y La Tierra (“On Heaven and Earth”).
With this background, Pope Francis will be able to encourage the Catholic Church’s rapprochement with Jews among millions of Spanish-speaking Catholics.
The pope’s choice of his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi is also significant. That saint is venerated for his simplicity, poverty and love of nature. He is also renowned as seeking open and honest conversation with Islamic leaders to bring peace — even in the midst of the Crusades!
If the pope follows in those early interreligious footsteps, then we can look forward to the continued maturation of the friendship between Jews and Catholics.
Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D. is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University.