(Call Me Jorge...'s note: underlines in the interview are ours for emphasis.)
Two revolutionary buddies for life, Skorka and Bergoglio.
Interview with the Argentinian rabbi, a friend of Francis '' Bergoglio had a very special bond with the Jewish community. His contribution is a call to build on dialogue through exegetical and theological studies, while at the same time reinforcing the commitment towards a common effort in making the world a fairer and more just place "
Andrea Tornielli for La Stampa, 15 January 2016, Vatican City
Pope Francis is the first Pope in the Roman Catholic Church to have published a book containing lengthy conversations with a rabbi, before His election. Abraham Skorka, the 65-year-old rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, became a great friend of the then archbishop Bergoglio. On Sunday 17 January the Pope will visit the Synagogue of Rome, the great Jewish temple that stands beyond the Tiber, a short distance from the Vatican. This will be the third time a Bishop of Rome enters the Synagogue, following John Paul II's historic visit in 1986 and that of his successor Benedict XVI, in 2010.
Rabbi Skórka, what was Archbishop Bergoglio's relationship with Argentina's Jewish community like? How did you come to write a book on your conversation together?
“The former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio, had a very special bond with the Argentinian Jewish community, demonstrated in numerous gestures, with which he expressed in profound commitment to relations with it and through it with Judaism as a whole. He forged some very deep and fond relationships like the one between us. This friendship, which grew through various encounters, in the sense Buber usually attributed to this term, allowed us to speak freely, without euphemisms. And so we wrote a book of conversations together, offering a joint analysis of the issues that are of greatest concern to mankind today. We went on to produce 31 television programmes with Marcelo Figueroa.”
What was the distinguishing feature - if any - in Francis' approach to the dialogue with Jewish faithful? And what are the elements of continuity with his predecessors?
“On the one hand, Francis has continued the process of dialogue between Jews and Catholics begun by John XXIII and significantly furthered by John Paul II. At the same time, though, he left His own imprint on the development of this dialogue. If we take a close look at the Evangelii Gaudium chapter on relations with Judaism (247-249) , we see that, just as John Paul II and Benedict XVI viewed the Jewish people as their “elder brothers” in the faith and the eternal validity of the Alliance between Israel and God, described in the Jewish Bible, so the current Pope reserves a special place for them in his apostolic exhortation. Despite the fact the first articles in the aforementioned chapter emphasise only the teachings of his predecessors, the final paragraph mentions what Francis has to say on the subject. ‘God continues to act through the people of the Ancient Alliance and brings forth treasures of wisdom that derive from its encounter with the divine Word. As such the Church too is enriched by the values of Judaism... There is a rich complementarity that allows us to read the texts of the Jewish Bible and help each other to explore the Word’s riches’. In Buenos Aires we analysed verses from the Jewish Bible together on many occasions. It was a fundamental part of our dialogue. As Bergoglio was Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, the institution awarded me an honoris causa degree. The intention of this gesture was very clear: to honor and take into consideration the cultural and religious contribution of a rabbi in a majority Christian society. Francis’ contribution in his call to build on dialogue through exegetical and theological study while at the same time reinforcing the commitment towards a common effort in making the world a fairer and more just place. We are at the start of a journey that is taking us in this direction. This journey requires a great deal of reflection and intellectual and spiritual digging, as well as a compromise in the face of the big dramas affecting humanity at present.
How do you interpret the history of Catholic-Jewish relations over the past 60years? Which was the path chosen by John XXIII? And what contribution did John Paul II make?
“John XXIII could see very clearly that Europe and the world was entering a new phase after World War Two, which called for a response and a message from the religions. So he laid the foundations for the Second Vatican Council. Having witnessed the tragedy of the Holocaust first hand and having saved the lives of many Jews as an apostolic delegate in Constantinople, he strove to do something about the lack of dialogue - which frequently implies hatred - between Jews and Christians and reverse this situation . In the new world that was to be built, that stain of blood and death needed to be removed. The Nostra Aetate was the consequence of the great work he did in this field. This declaration acted as a catalyst for dialogue Jews and Christians engaged in on different levels. The process progressed through the subsequent declarations made by the Vatican commission for dialogue with Judaism. John Paul II was the second great advocate of the process’s continuity and development. His request for forgiveness for the mistakes the Church had made in relation to the Jewish people in the past, His historic visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, the prayers he said at the (Western, Ed.) Wall are all signs that will shed his light on Jewish-Christian relations forevermore.”
John Paul II's visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986 was a historic event. What recollection do you have of it? What can you say about Benedict XVI and his very deep theological reflections on the special relationship between Judaism and Christianity?
“Both of the events you mentioned in your question were watershed moments in the history of the development of Jewish-Christian relations, for which the Nostra Aetate was a blueprint. John Paul II ended a painful chapter in the history of Rome because dialogue and respect had been lacking in relations between Rome’s Jews and the city’s bishop, the Pope. Walking at a normal peace, it takes about twenty minutes to get from the Vatican to the Great Temple of Rome. And yet it took centuries before a Pope made that journey. The embrace between John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff at the start of the visit will remain imprinted in people’s minds as an sign of understanding and dialogue for Jews and Catholics and an example for all humanity. In the same way, Benedict XVI’s theological reflection on the special bond between Judaism and Christianity, repairs a historic rift, laying the foundations for closer relations and mutual recognition, in order to allow Jews and Christians to dig deeper into their origins and genuinely reinforce their identity, each doing Their bit, together, to improve relations.”
A new Vatican document published last month states that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews”, because its relationshipwith them is different than with any other faith. What is your take on this?
“Ever since the approval of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, dignitaries of the Church on a number of occasions demonstrated that the Church would not be carrying out any evangelical action or mission with the Jewish people as it had done on a dramatic scale in the past. But the document “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” made this clear officially. It was thus that a very painful chapter in Jewish-Christian relations was closed. Just a stone’s throw away from the square where Rome’s Jewish ghetto was - the square reminds its inhabitants that this is where the journey to the Nazi concentration camps began - there is a church with a frontispiece that quotes verse 65, 2 of the Book of Isaiah, “I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people”. During the Middle Ages they would compulsively Jews gather in this church - I have been told this by experts on Jewish history in Rome - all of them ghetto inhabitants, to make them listen to the missionary preaching of Christian clerics. The Church’s latest document puts a definitive end to these stories that are part of a sad past.”
Skorka leads and Francis follows!