The pope is almost a mythical figure, a person with celebrity status. But Pope Francis is a humble, genuine man of the people, according to Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
He first met Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, in the 1990s at a celebration of one of Argentina’s two independence days, where Rabbi Skorka was representing the Jewish community. The archbishop asked each religious leader to talk about his favorite soccer team, and Rabbi Skorka said River Plate [in Buenos Aires], whose fans are known as chickens.
“[Bergoglio] told me … I guess that this year we are going to have chicken soup,” Rabbi Skorka laughed. And with one joke began a longtime friendship and interfaith exchange. The rabbi realized Bergoglio was opening himself up.
Rabbi Skorka spoke to a crowd of about 150 people at Chizuk Amuno Congregation on Sunday, Nov. 3, about his relationship with Pope Francis, the book they co-authored, “On Heaven and Earth,” and their mission to bring different faith communities closer together.
“He has very clear positions and a very clear understanding of the importance of the Jewish-Catholic relationship,” Rabbi Skorka said. “We, Christians and Jews, have the challenge to work closer and closer in order to bring some kind of vision to the world.”
In addition to their ongoing discussions, the two have made interfaith TV programs, come together for interfaith prayer and shared Selichot, and the pope has even spoken at Rabbi Skorka’s Buenos Aires synagogue.
“We have a lot to do and to find in order to materialize our dreams,” Rabbi Skorka said.
He said the first step to that is Christians and Jews recognizing each other — the heritage, the history and the religious customs. For Rabbi Skorka that means sharing kosher meals with the pope and visiting him at the Vatican.
While Rabbi Skorka spoke about his discussions and interactions with the pope, he also painted a picture of the man he refers to as a “very close, sincere friend.”
When an audience member asked about the pope and his emphasis on helping the poor, Rabbi Skorka described a man who tries to lead by example. When the pope visited Rabbi Skorka’s synagogue, he took the subway rather than a fancy car. He lived a very simple life before becoming pope and still maintains a “simple” apartment in Argentina, Rabbi Skorka said.
“He [doesn’t] like to be called Pope, but to be called the Bishop of Rome,” Rabbi Skorka said. “He [doesn’t look at] himself as king, but as the shepherd.”
Rabbi Skorka also spoke about the pope’s take on anti-Semitism and said the Pope has expressed deep sadness to the rabbi about recent and past anti-Semitic events.
“He’s very worried with these kind of acts, and he really suffers from these kinds of acts,” Rabbi Skorka said.
The talk offered insight into a person very few people get close to. Judy Meltzer, director of adult learning at Chizuk Amuno, said she wanted to bring Rabbi Skorka to the congregation after reading the book.
“I, personally, am very encouraged with this pope,” she said. “You’re glad to see your hopes and dreams reinforced by someone in the know. I think [the pope] practices what he preaches.”
Sima Scherr, a member of Beth El Congregation, said it was important for her to go because her brother was the late Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who was internationally known for bridging the gaps between different faith communities. She was impressed with how much interest Pope Francis takes in Rabbi Skorka as a Jew and in Judaism.
“He’s a breath of fresh air, this pope,” she said.
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter