There is a long tradition of Jewish jokes wherein a rabbi has a private audience with the pope. In these comedic stories, the conversations between the two are often conducted in a counterintuitive silence.
Why? A dialogue carried out in silence for comedic effect highlighted the fact that for centuries the Church did not speak directly to the Jewish community, and when the Church did speak to the Jews, there was certainly no expectation of a response.
Time was, interreligious dialogue was the furthest thing from Christian-Jewish relations. One-on-one encounters between Catholics and Jews, so as to achieve a greater understanding of one another, were fodder for laughs. Thus, for centuries, Jews watched the goings on within the Vatican with, at best, a wary detachment and, at worst, great trepidation.
But no more.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), and the approval of Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”), which (1) affirmed that Jews remain most dear to God, (2) acknowledged the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people made at Mt. Sinai, (3) rejected anti-Semitism as contrary to Christianity and (4) declared that Jews were never collectively cursed by God for the death of Jesus, our two faith communities have been on a positive path of reconciliation.
So it was that following the decision of now-Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI to step down from the Chair of Saint Peter, Jews around the world were eager to learn if the good and true progress made in the area of interfaith relations would continue.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. When it was announced that the new pope would be Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Francis I), Jews quickly discovered that in this man, we had a friend. Indeed, building upon the real progress made since the adoption of Nostra Aetate, as well as his own experiences in this realm, Francis quickly made his intentions and heart known to all.
One of the first things the new pope did following his election was to send a message of friendship to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni (a man with whom Bishop Zubik and I met when we were together in Rome in November 2010). Further, Francis singled out the Jewish delegation among other non-Christian delegations for special
mention at his installation service, saying, “we are joined in a very special spiritual bond,” since, as Vatican II affirms, “the beginnings of Christian faith are … the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets.”
But the truth is the pope’s early outreach came as no surprise to anyone who had followed his career. Bergoglio twice preached in a synagogue and publicly celebrated Jewish holidays, including a pre-Jewish New Year service and Chanuka. He was known for his participation in Holocaust commemorations and was widely praised for his compassionate response to one of the worst attacks on Jews in Latin America: the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. And so, too, did he erect a memorial within Buenos Aires’ main Roman Catholic cathedral to the victims of that heinous anti-Semitic bombing, as well as to all those killed in the Holocaust.
What’s more, then-Cardinal Bergoglio regularly participated in meetings devoted to Christian-Jewish relations and with his close friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, now-Pope Francis co-authored a book of conversations between himself and the rabbi. After the book was published, the two men continued their dialogue on a weekly TV program.
We have come a long way since the dark days when the best Jews could hope for was an imaginary, silent exchange of ideas with the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, as Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has stated, “There never, ever has been a pope with so much previous interaction with the Jewish community.”
If there was any doubt about this pope’s commitment to building upon the progress made as a result of Vatican II, consider the pontiff’s own words in response to this query: Is it true that [people] don’t want dialogue?
“I wouldn’t say so,” Francis said. “Rather, I think we succumb … [too often to] attitudes that don’t permit us to dialogue: arrogance, not knowing how to listen, hostility in our speech, attacking the messenger. … Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect toward the other person, from a conviction that the other has something good to say.”
No surprise that Francis has garnered accolades for his positive history with the Jewish community. No wonder Jews the world over have been anything but silent in our enthusiasm for what this new pope’s commitment to interreligious dialogue means for all of us. No joke.
(Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. The Pittsburgh Catholic is simultaneously publishing this column.)