Email is a funny thing.
“Imagine you turn on your phone,” said Rabbi Abraham Skorka to several hundred attendees at the Performing Arts Center at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. You scroll down and all of a sudden, “you get an email from the pope.”
Such is a regular occurrence for Skorka, the Latin American spiritual leader and longtime dialogue friend of Pope Francis.
An oft-cited demonstration of the connection between the Argentine men of faith includes the co-authored book “On Heaven and Earth,” a 2013 translation of Skorka and then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s 2010 Spanish work, “Sobre el cielo y la tierra.”
“God put us together,” Skorka said of his friendship with the pontiff.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Skorka recounted their relationship, as well as the importance of interfaith dialogue, while participating in the inaugural event of the Rabbi Edelstein Chair for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue. Seated alongside Skorka on the Saint Vincent stage were Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh and co-founder of the rabbinic seminary Abraham Geiger Colleger in Berlin/Potsdam; Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh; Sister Mary Boys, dean of Academic Affairs and professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City; and Father Campion Gavaler, professor emeritus at Saint Vincent. Rabbi Jason Edelstein, rabbi emeritus of Temple David in Monroeville and associate professor of Theology at Saint Vincent, facilitated the conversation.
Following initial remarks from Skorka and Wuerl on the merits of interfaith dialogue, Edelstein turned to the group. How does one understand the concept of being made “in the image of God?” the facilitator asked.
“No one would deny that we are made in the image of God, but in history often we fail to live by this,” said Boys.
Understanding the aforementioned notion has much to do with respecting the dignity of the other, explained Wuerl. “Even when there are issues we don’t agree on there is something greater that unites us.”
Echoing that sentiment, Skorka credited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th- century Jewish theologian, with instilling in him the understanding that “when I am looking on my fellow, I must discover God.
“In order to construct a bridge with the other, you must know the other and respect the other,” added Skorka, a rector and professor at the Seminario Rabinico Latinamericano in Buenos Aires.
But what about adversaries, asked Edelstein. “How do we talk with these people?”
“Actions are their own voice,” answered Wuerl. “It’s in the works, it’s the doing.”
Yet combating the “cynicism about religion” is a challenge, noted Boys.
For “religious people, it’s very important we acknowledge our blindness,” a condition that she explained has prevented many from seeing “God in all people.”
Being able to engage those with alternative views is critical, said Jacob. “Very often when faced by science we become defensive and really we should go on the offensive. That’s what was done by the prophets in ancient times.”
Ultimately, however, speech only goes so far, cautioned Wuerl.
“Words have limits and even words spoken by prophets have limits,” said the prelate. “Sometimes a simple act of love is as effective as a beautiful homiletic passage of scripture. We have to find a way to merge the two together.”
“Between science and religion there must be a dialogue, but a dialogue of respect,” added Skorka.
Certain fundamental disagreements may exist, but understanding and appreciating the “irreconcilable differences” will make us better dialogue partners, said Edelstein.
“If we only take one side of it, there’s something in it that we’re missing.”
For his part, Skorka brought up his own friendship with Pope Francis as an example.
“We have differences, for instance in terms of abortion,” he said. But for both, “life is a matter of sanctity, a matter of God. You can’t play with life like we play with a ball.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.