On Feb. 13, I shook hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican. I was a member of a delegation from the American Jewish Committee led by our national leaders and the leadership for Interreligious Affairs.
Under any circumstances, this experience would have held profound meaning for me. To meet this Pope, at this moment in time, was a rare opportunity to experience a transformational figure as he has barely begun his own journey based on his message of humanity and humility.
All around the world, people have voiced their overwhelmingly embrace of Pope Francis. He has awakened a new sense of possibility of a world more responsive to fundamental needs of the poor and to more broadminded thinking about social justice.
By all accounts, the Jewish community has responded to the promise of Pope Francis in similar fashion. In the first few months of his papacy, he has demonstrated that he is no ordinary religious leader. As the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, he is the first Pope from the Americas, the first non-European pope since Pope Gregory III (731-741) and the first Jesuit pope.
For the Jewish community Archbishop and then Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was unique among the many candidates who might have been elevated to this position. His close relationship with the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, home of the 13th largest Jewish population in the world, was exemplary. He reached out in solidarity in the wake of the 1994 terrorist bombing at AMIA, the Jewish Community Center where 80 died and hundreds were wounded, established a permanent Holocaust memorial, and held commemorations at the Buenos Aires cathedral.
Pope Francis had and has deep personal relationships with many in the Jewish community and engaged with hundreds more over several decades. He co-authored a book with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, “Heaven and Earth,” creating a written record of their televised dialogues on diverse issues.
AJC has a long and proud history of building relationships with the Church. This mission provided the opportunity to further and deepen our connections. In addition to coming to meet a man who many think will be a transformational figure in our lifetime, we came to Rome at a juncture when the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jewish community is at an all-time high.
Fifty years ago next year the historical document Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) was promulgated and with it the beginning of a fundamental change in the relationship between Jews and Catholics. In just 50 years, these two faith communities have developed a deep theological connection. Nostra Aetate declared that the past teachings of the Catholic Church, which led to such vilification of Jews, were to be rejected and replaced with teachings about the close lineage of the Jews and Catholics. It taught in no uncertain terms that God’s covenant with the Jews remains unbroken.
In our time, Pope Francis is the first pope ever to have practiced his ministry in the midst of a vibrant Jewish community with the new doctrine of Nostra Aetate.
Our audience with Pope Francis took place in the Vatican, a collection of buildings that inspire awe under any circumstances. The great beauty of the exterior architecture and the vastness of St. Peters Cathedral captivate anyone who has visited. The interior halls of the Vatican reveal ceilings and walls whose frescoes dazzle and expose us to architecture, paintings, furniture and tapestries of rare beauty and historical importance. Seeing these rooms up close as we were escorted to our meetings gave a sense of being in another era.
This trip held some special treats. Among our many meetings leading up to our audience with the Pope was one with the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Designate Pietro Parolin, who holds the second most powerful position in the Vatican. His domain includes the vast array of non-theological issues with which the Vatican deals as an independent nation. He listened carefully to our agenda and committed his attention to many of the issues raised, including extending knowledge of Nostra Aetate to the Latino world and the plight of Christian communities in the Middle East.
From that meeting we were led to the Sistine Chapel through the corridors and the doors by which the Pope enters. These are the same doors through which the Cardinals enter during their conclave. As we passed through those doors, our group was acutely aware that we had been given very special access to an inner sanctum.
We began our morning meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Cardinal Koch has been a friend of the Jewish community for many years. His welcome was warm and familiar. At his side was Father Norbert J. Hofmann, who has been secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews since 2002. Father Hofmann is young, energetic and has ready access to the important activities between the Church and the Jewish community. He listens intently and works closely with AJC on a wide range of projects. Following Cardinal Koch’s remarks, we had the opportunity for questions and once again asked about many of the same issues discussed with Secretary of State Parolin.
We then climbed into our vans and headed for the audience with Pope Francis, accompanied by Cardinal Koch and Father Hofmann. Leading our mission was AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi David Rosen. Rabbi Rosen’s credentials speak to his highly respected position as the Jewish representative to faith communities throughout the world. His positions span from honorary advisor on interfaith relations with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, to the International President of Religions for Peace, and Board of Directors of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious Dialogue.
Rabbi Rosen has long and substantive relations with the Vatican. In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI made the rabbi a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his contributions to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. In 2010, Queen Elizabeth II made him Commander of the British Empire for his interreligious work. The upcoming audience would be Rabbi Rosen’s fifth meeting with Pope Francis. Throughout our visit we were kept well informed and at all times felt we were with “Friends of David”.
Once again we were led through the vast and splendid hallways of the Vatican. At each opening another colorfully dressed Swiss Guardsman manned the door. Finally we were brought into a grand salon. As we waited for the Pope to enter, an excitement filled the room. At the same time I was struck by the profound irony that Pope Francis has raised for the church. Sitting in another space of overwhelming elegance and richness, we were about to meet the man who had taken the name of St. Francis of Assisi, following the teachings of humility and duty to care for those in need.
Pope Francis is a plain man who dresses simply, but carries himself with an unassuming confidence. His warmth and instant focus on engaging with the group was evident. Stanley Bergman, President of the AJC, presented remarks from our delegation. He spoke of the significance of the Pope’s special message to urge leaders ‘to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it’. Mr. Bergman reminded the Pontiff of AJC’s long history of working to reconcile relationships and our appreciation of the Church’s statements against anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and man”. He also spoke of the challenges the Jewish and Catholic communities still share, including those in Israel. Finally, he spoke of the hope we all have that the Pope’s upcoming visit to the Holy Land will “inspire all in the region to reject the path of violence and pursue paths of peace”.
Pope Francis began his remarks with a welcome and a message for the future. He noted the upcoming anniversary of Nostra Aetate which he said “constitutes for the Church the sure point of reference for relations with our “elder brothers”. Nostra Aetate reflects “the spiritual patrimony which unites us and which is the foundation of our dialogue”… which is “theological, and not simply an expression of our desire for reciprocal respect and esteem”. He went on to say “Therefore, it is important that our dialogue be always profoundly marked by the awareness of our relationship with God”.
Pope Francis captured the transcendent evolution of our relationship and the basis of how we should move forward together. He also stated that in addition to dialogue “it is also important to find ways in which Jews and Christians can cooperate in constructing a more just and fraternal world”. As has been his constant theme, he asked that our common efforts “serve the poor, the marginalized and those who suffer”. Just as Pope Francis has challenged the world, so too are we as Jews challenged to work with our partners in the Church to pursue Tikkun Olam.
Finally, the Pope raised the great challenge of education that we had previously raised in our prior meetings. “In order that our efforts may not be fruitless, it is important that we dedicate ourselves to transmitting to new generations the heritage of our mutual knowledge, esteem and friendship…”. He went on to say, “It is my hope therefore that the study of relations with Judaism may continue to flourish in seminaries and in centers of formation for lay Catholics, as I am similarly hopeful that a desire for an understanding of Christianity may grow among young Rabbis and the Jewish community.”
When the Pope concluded his remarks, AJC presented him with a gift of the catalogue from the recent Marc Chagall retrospective at the Jewish Museum. The book contained an image of “White Crucifixion,” a favorite painting of Pope Francis which used Christian symbolism to alert the world of the suffering of Jews on the brink of the Shoa. Upon seeing this image the Pope was visibly moved and his smile gave hope to our delegation that he might put our gift in his personal quarters.
We were then able to line up and have a personal moment and handshake with the Pope. It was a fleeting few seconds, but a special moment that will be etched in the memory of each member of the delegation. While overwhelmingly made up of AJC members, several of the AJC delegation were Catholic friends of the organization. Watching these friends embracing this special and highly spiritual moment was truly moving. It felt wonderful to share this experience, just for that moment, with a believer in the Catholic faith.
A critical reality of the Jewish community’s relationship with the Church is that the teachings of Nostra Aetate have flourished mainly in the United States. With anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe it is particularly unfortunate that the dissemination of these teachings has been far less successful there. In Central and South America there is relatively little knowledge of either Nostra Aetate or experience with the Jewish community. Today, in the United States the growing Hispanic population now represents more than 30 percent of the over 75 million Catholics and more than 70 percent of those were born after the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. One of AJC’s high priorities is engaging this growing religious community in our ongoing interreligious agenda.
I have had the rare privilege to be one on one with more than one Pope. Each is unique, but the chance to shake the hand of Pope Francis was extraordinary. These are the hands that are reaching out to visibly help others and be a symbol to the world that we can and are required to do more. His smile was a reminder of his constant and steadfast will to be a messenger of peace to the world. Hopefully, for all of us, his message will be heard.
The Mission came to a grand conclusion on Friday night. We gathered with many “Friends of David,” including prominent Vatican leaders and the Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican. While much of our trip had a serious tone, great fun was had at our interreligious Shabbat dinner. Our conversations were rich with exchanges about comparing religious rituals, planning for future activities together and simply creating new connections. We were inspired by the moving D'var Torah of Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the United States. Throughout the evening we sang together both the traditional prayers to traditional melodies but also traditional prayers to anything but traditional sounds. Rabbi Rosen had put some Shabbat table hymns to the chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Elvis Presley oldies. The dinner was uplifting and joyous, and as the evening came to an end, no one really wanted to leave. The momentous experience came to a most fulfilling conclusion, highlighted by another reality… as Jews and Catholics we enjoy being with one another, we share much in common, and it is right that we pursue the repair of the world together.
St. Louisan Mont Levy is Vice Chair of the Interreligious Affairs Commission for AJC. He was part of a 50-member AJC delegation that met with the Pope.