In his first formal address to the Jewish community since he became Archbishop of Philadelphia almost two years ago, Charles Chaput spoke candidly Thursday about his desire for strong Jewish-Catholic relations, while also illustrating the hurdles that exist between the two religions.
Chaput, who came to Philadelphia from Denver where he spent 14 years as archbishop, said it's important for the Catholic Church to repent for its past anti-Semitism, including during World War II. But during his speech  and in his responses to questions afterwards, Chaput emphasized that both sides, Jewish and Catholic, have to work toward developing “real friendships” over the next few years.
“Reconciliation requires both the sinner and the person who was sinned against to want some sort of common future and to work towards it honestly, and frankly there is no easy blueprint to make that happen,” he said.
Leaders of local Jewish organizations and congregations gathered at the Jewish Community Services Building for the July 11 event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.
The speech came a few months after the Catholic Church elected its new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian cardinal who was known to have warm relations with Jews in South America.
Chaput said he thinks of Jews as elder brothers and sisters to the Catholic faith. He asked, however, whether Orthodox Jews view people of his religion as heretics and if that precludes them from feeling a similar kinship to Catholics.
Chaput attributed some parts of the Jewish community’s distrust of Catholicism to the Holocaust, when Pope Pius XII remained largely silent while Jews were killed, and to apprehension over the institutional power of the church. In responding to that idea, Chaput said, “For believing Catholics, the institutional side of the church is probably the least important side of their faith.”
He said institutions are necessary, but to Catholics, prayer, worship and service to others are more important.
“I’m not sure Jews always see that or even try to see that in their understanding of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Conversely, he said “Catholics often find it hard to understand what holds the Jewish community together.” He said it’s often through interfaith dialogue that Catholics discover that some people connect to Judaism on a cultural rather than a religious level.
He said keys to future successful Jewish-Catholic relations are patience, as the Catholic Church focuses on its internal problems, and “an admission that we’ll disagree, sometimes strongly, on many things from theology to public policy.”
“But I think the pattern of Catholic-Jewish relations has been permanently altered. And I think the reasons for it are simple: the generosity and openness of the Jewish community” and its positive relations with the last several popes, he said.
Since coming to Philadelphia, Chaput said his time has been dominated by the church’s legal issues, poor morale among parishioners and financial woes.
Several Jewish leaders expressed concern about the closing of the Catholic Office for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs, which had served as a link to the Jewish community and other faiths.
“I get irritated on this question a little bit, so please forgive my irritation. How many Protestant communities have people they hire to dialogue with the Catholics? How many Jewish communities have people they hire to dialogue with the Catholics? I find it generally not, but we’re expected to hire people to dialogue with other Christians and the Jews, and we don’t have any money. I'd love to hire somebody,” he said.
Chaput described himself as a strong supporter of Israel but said that almost all of the Catholic priests who spend time working there come back to the United States with “anti-Israeli” views because of the way they perceive the country to be treating Palestinians.
“What I always say in response is that if my life were in danger every day and my country could be destroyed by the hatred of my neighbors,” he said, “it would be quite a different way of looking at things" than the way people like the priests, who travel to Israel on a mission and only live there temporarily.