ROME — When the white smoke rose last week at the Vatican, signaling to the world that the College of Cardinals had chosen a new pope, Catholics weren’t the only ones waiting with bated breath.
Jews, too, were eager to see whether the new pontiff would be someone familiar with their concerns. Would he be a non-European unfamiliar with the Jewish people and the weighty legacy of the Holocaust? Would he carry on the approach of his immediate predecessors and work to further Jewish-Catholic relations?
After the new pope appeared before the masses in St. Peter’s Square, it didn’t take long for him to signal that he would maintain the church’s outreach to Jews. Nor did it take long for the Jews to sing his praises.
Pope Francis told Jewish leaders that Catholics and Jews are “bound by a very special spiritual bond.”
The new pontiff also pledged to foster the interfaith dialogue begun with the Nostra Aetate decree of the Second Vatican Council.
“I thank you for your presence and trust that with the help of the Almighty, we can continue that fruitful fraternal dialogue that the council wished for,” he said. “And that it is actually achieved, bringing many fruits, especially during the last decades.”
Francis made the remarks during an audience with the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and non-Catholic Christian delegations that had attended his inauguration a day earlier.
As it turns out, Pope Francis, 76 – née Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina – was from outside Europe and had a long history of interfaith outreach and good relations with the Jews. He’s the first pope from the Americas, as well as the first in more than a millennium from outside Europe.
The new pontiff “is no stranger to us,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who met with Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 2008, said in a statement. “He always had an open ear for our concerns.
“By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world,” Lauder said. “I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”
Like pope Benedict before him, Pope Francis, in one of his first official acts, wrote to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. He invited Di Segni to the papal inaugural mass and said he hoped “to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced” since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The election of Pope Francis, Di Segni wrote back, “gives us the hope that the path of friendship, respect and productive collaboration will continue.”
Pope John Paul II had made outreach to Jews one of the pillars of his papacy. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued interfaith dialogue but also made several policy decisions that angered Jews, including lifting the excommunication of a renegade bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
Pope Francis projects a man-of-the-people style in sharp contrast to Benedict, who was seen as removed and cold. Pope Francis is known for living simply, taking the subway and answering his own phone. He spent virtually his entire career in Argentina, away from the intrigues of the Vatican’s Roman Curia – the central governing body of the Catholic Church – and other scandals that dogged the papacy of his predecessor.
However, within days of the new pope’s election, the Vatican faced questions about what Pope Francis did – and did not do – to oppose the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Critics have said the church did not do enough to thwart the military dictatorship’s Dirty War, including the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests in 1976. Pope Francis has said he worked behind the scenes to free the priests and sheltered others by hiding them at a Jesuit school.
The questions about Pope Francis’ past carry echoes of the Holocaust-era controversy surrounding pope Pius XII. Many Jews charge that Pius did not do enough to oppose the Nazis, but the Vatican and Pius’ proponents say he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.
While a staunch conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, female priests and abortion, Pope Francis spent years working among the poor and made interfaith outreach one of his priorities.
“The Latin American Jewish Congress has had a close relationship with Monsignor Jorge Bergoglio for many years,” said Claudio Epelman, executive director of the congress. “We know his virtues and have no doubt whatsoever that he will do an excellent job for the church.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, his relationship with Argentine Jews was personal as well as institutional.
His only book, Regarding Heaven and Earth, is the transcript of wide-ranging conversations between himself and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. Pope Francis and the rabbi also shared billing on an Argentine TV talk show on religious issues.
Pope Francis has referred to Skorka as his “brother and friend.” The then-cardinal attended services at Skorka’s synagogue and also arranged for Skorka to receive an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Argentina.
Pope Francis is cited with particular warmth by Argentine Jews for showing solidarity with the Jewish community following the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead. The attack, Francis told the Argentine media, was “another link in the chain of pain and persecution that God’s chosen people has suffered throughout history.”
In 2005, he signed a petition for justice in the AMIA bombing case and a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures.” In June 2010, he visited the rebuilt AMIA building to talk with Jewish leaders.
“The closeness between Francis and the Jewish community is special and precious,” Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, told JTA.
Bretton-Granatoor, who is based in New York but has met Pope Francis a couple of times, called the new pope “a mensch” who “gets the importance of a relationship with the Jewish community, who understands the meaning of the Shoah and has a heart in the right place on a number of issues that concern us as well.”
Obviously, he added, “we will vigorously disagree with him on many fundamental issues as well – but that is part of the game, isn’t it?”