As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was well known in his efforts in fostering dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish Community of Argentina.
After yesterday’s meeting with various delegations representing different faiths, Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, noted that there “were many within the Jewish delegation who were very enthusiastic and happy.”
Among those present at yesterday’s Audience was Rabbi David Rosen, Interfaith Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Rabbi Rosen spoke to ZENIT on his experience of yesterday’s audience.
ZENIT: What did you say to the Pope Francis ?
Rabbi Rosen: When one is part of a delegation, even a private audience with the Pope does not allow for real conversation. I said I hoped he will help deepen the Jewish-Catholic relationship even further and hoped that he will also contribute to advancing peace in the Holy Land.
ZENIT: And how did the Pope respond ?
Rabbi Rosen: He nodded and said yes, yes, and smiled and shook my hands. There was not much time for much more.
ZENIT: What is your expectation for the coming years and Jewish-Catholic relations?
Rabbi Rosen: The most important is that those “vaticanisti” who said that Vatican focus on relations with the Jews would diminish after Benedict XVI, and after John Paul II, and that we would have a Pope who won’t have any particularly interest in this area have all been wrong. We can anticipate with confidence that the Jewish-Catholic relationship will be an important focus of this pontificate. You know, also today at the private audience, Pope Francis emphasized in his words a special commitment to the Jewish-Catholic relationship and yesterday when he spoke at his inauguration Mass he welcomed “the Jewish representatives and representatives of other religions” so we were the only representatives beside the other Christian groups he mentioned by name.
So we can expect a deepening even further of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People.
If you ask me what unfinished business I’d like him to address, I would say that the major challenge is an educational challenge. There has been a revolutionary transformation in the Church’s teaching and approach to Jews, Judaism and Israel. And where you have living vibrant Jewish communities alongside Catholic communities like in the United States, then these changes have been internalized into the educational institutions of the Church and down to the grass roots. But there are many places in the world where there are no Jewish communities and where Jews do not appear on the Catholic “radar screen” and places where, even bishops don’t know the content of “Nostra Aetate,” and where it is not part of Catholic education.
So I think that the fact that Pope Francis comes from Argentina – ok in Argentina you have a living Jewish community and in Brazil – but in most of the rest of Latin America, you do not, and therefore I think it is very important that we get his support and his guidance and his instruction – to churches and parochial schools and in the formation of priests around the world – that this must be an integral part of their educational program.
ZENIT: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said you can’t be a Catholic and an anti-Semite. What is your evaluation of Pope Benedict’s pontificate from the point of view of Catholic-Jewish relationships?
Rosen: Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been extremely important and I don’t think many people in the Jewish community understand how important it was. Because he not only went in John Paul II’s footsteps and in someway expanded on them, for example he visited more synagogues in 8 years than John Paul II in his whole pontificate. But also following in John Paul’s footsteps he did something very important: because you could have said that John Paul II’s visit to the synagogue in Rome and to the Holy Land, to Israel, were idiosyncratic actions of a man who had a personal experience of Jewish friendships as a boy and because of the impact of the Shoah, and that’s why he felt in himself a need for to make these gestures. By Benedict XVI following in his footsteps and doing exactly the same actions, in effect, he enshrined these actions into the fabric of the pontificate and of the Church as a whole.
So it would be natural now for Pope Francis to visit the synagogue in Rome, to come to Israel, to the Holy Land and in many respects these natural steps have been facilitated by Pope Benedict XVI’s commitment to the path of John Paul II.
ZENIT: In France, Marc Knobel has just published an important book about anti-Semitism between the years 2000-2013. How does one respond to these new forms of anti-Semitism?
Rosen: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism now becomes fashionable again. After the impact of the Second World War, we thought that we had controlled this virus. But it is now breaking out in all many places in different ways. And one of the latest is Hungary, where you see a kind of a neo-fascist anti-Semitism, and then you see in some places like in France and Belgium an anti-Semitism, which is an outlet for Arab frustrations that focuses upon the Israeli-Arab conflict and generates hostility towards anybody who supports Israel.
Then you see anti-Semitism coming from certain new-left circles who want to portray Israel as a surrogate of America. So that all kinds of new anti-Semitism are appearing from the right to the left that requires an important response and I certainly trust and expect that Pope Francis would be very strong on this issue because he understands it. He understands and also he experienced the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, the AMIA Center where 85 Jews were killed. He was among the first to come there, to show solidarity and also to issue a statement calling the Argentine authorities to apprehend the perpetrators. He participated in the memorial event last year he held in the cathedral, a “Kristal Nacht” Memorial event. We have every reason to expect that Francis would be just as committed as Benedict XVI and as John Paul II to fighting anti-Semitism