INTERVIEW: 'Each Jewish Person in Buenos Aires Thinks Bergoglio Was His Best Friend'

As ‘Nostra Aetate’ Marks 50 Years, Argentine Jew Claudio Epelman Tells ZENIT How Pope Francis’ Interreligious Gestures Are Making History

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Almost all Jews in Buenos Aires felt like they were the best Jewish friend of the archbishop Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now-Pope Francis, according to Claudio Epelman, a friend of the Pope who is now the executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress.
Epelman lightheartedly made this observation when he spoke with ZENIT today, recalling how close Cardinal Bergoglio always was to Argentina’s Jewish community.
The Jewish representative was speaking along with other religious leaders during a press conference held at the Holy See Press Office this afternoon to discuss the “interreligious general audience” held this morning in St. Peter’s Square. The audience marked the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate.
Nostra Aetate was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on this date in 1965. As the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions, it condemned Anti-Semitism in all its forms and signified an opening or widening of relations with other religions.
Epelman, who had the opportunity of knowing Cardinal Bergoglio when he was Archbishop of  Buenos Aires, told ZENIT how after a long history of working together with Catholics and Jews as well as people of other religions, Pope Francis has made history at this morning’s general audience.
Epelman also candidly shared his emotion upon learning Bergoglio was elected Pope, recalled the Holy Father’s relationships with the Jewish people as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and reflected on why Nostra Aetate is so significant, especially to the Jewish community. In addition, he spoke about the significance of having world faith leaders and representatives gathered together at a time in which martyrdom is being seen worldwide.

ZENIT: As an Argentinean who knew Archbishop Bergoglio well, how did you feel when he was elected Pope?

Epelman: I have known Jorge Bergoglio for a long time. When he needed to go to Rome after Pope Benedict XVI had resigned, I had to meet with him about something. So, he called me and said, “Claudio, I have to go, and [we have to] cancel the meeting because I am going to be in Rome.” As usual, he told me, “Pray for me.” And I… I am a bit shameless, and said to him, “pray for ‘Yes,’ or pray for ‘Not?'” And he said to me, “Absolutely not.” And then he never went back to Argentina [smiling and laughing.] And then the next time I saw him was on the balcony, wishing those in the Square, “Buonasera.” [chuckling]
ZENIT: What do you remember about the Archbishop’s relation to the Jewish community?
Epelman: In Buenos Aires, he was always very close to the Jewish community and very sensitive toward Jews. Even before becoming Pope, he developed relationships between Catholics and Jews, and he continues this legacy now as Pope. He was always so close with Jews, that I joked that almost every Jew in Buenos Aires could joke that he was best friends with Bergoglio… Every Jewish person in Buenos Aires believes he is his best Jewish friend…[smiling]
ZENIT: As a Jewish person, why is it significant to you that there was this interreligious audience led by Pope Francis to recall the impact of Nostra Aetate?
Epelman: I think today, we were witnesses of something really new and terrific, which is, I think, the second time in history, in which a Pope spoke to a Catholic audience, about Judaism and the relationship with the Jews. The first time was 50 years ago when Paul VI signed Nostra Aetate. In the meantime, many Popes, many times, met with Jewish leaders and delegations and spoke to them very nicely, very friendly, very deeply and very honestly. But today, we saw how the Pope spoke again, 50 years later, to the Catholic Audience, how they [Catholics] must be like family, brothers and sisters, with the Jews. I think it is a historic moment what happened today in St. Peter’s Square.  It was an interfaith audience calling for us all to live together in diversity. Pope Francis’ “language,” I would say, has been one of gestures, more so than speeches. 
ZENIT: Why do you believe Nostra Aetate is important to the Jewish people?
Epelman: Nostra Aetate has been a historical point which really changed the history of relations between Jewish people and Catholics. I think we believe, as Jewish people, that over the past 2,000 years, there has been somewhat of a negative relationship with the Catholic Church, where we knew persecution, discrimination, inquisition, but now — with Nostra Aetate — we live in an absolutely different age, in a new time. And for us, this is an opportunity, to open the dialogue. With the dialogue, we get to know each other, and once we know each other, the prejudice is no longer relevant, because you really know the person. This is what the Pope calls the “culture of the meeting.”
Through the meeting, we believe God exists in the world. And we must prove that the co-existence between faiths is possible and because I know him from when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, I know that he believes in it. He is absolutely committed to this, to this job. So we are going to try to be his proper partners, to work together, to improve the state of the world, as the Jewish tradition has a commandment and as today, the Pope told [those at the audience], that we need to give to our children a world better than that world which we’ve received. And this is our common job, which we have to do for humanity.
ZENIT: Today, you are here in the Vatican with various religious leaders and representatives. What do you believe is significant about this? 
Epelman: Today, we are now seeing that on behalf of religion and our common God, people are being martyred. This is our challenge: to explain, to believe, and to do it as a fact in the world, that nobody can kill on the behalf of our God. I think that is the biggest and most relevant challenge we, all the people of faith around the world, have to face.
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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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