Citing the Declaration Nostra Aetate, and the teachings of Saint Paul, Pope Francis declared Monday, during his first official meeting in the Vatican with representatives of the Jewish community, that “due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”
He continued, “The fundamental principles expressed by the Declaration have marked the path of greater awareness and mutual understanding trodden these last decades by Jews and Catholics, a path which my predecessors have strongly encouraged, both by very significant gestures and by the publication of a series of documents to deepen the thinking about theological bases of the relations between Jews and Christians. It is a journey for which we must surely give thanks to God.”
The meeting was organized by the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation, who, by tradition, is the first group to meet with a new pope. According to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the IJCIC, “is one of the places in Jewish life where rabbis and lay leaders from all denominations join together in common cause to build relationships with other religious groups in order to strengthen the Jewish people.” Schonfeld, who was part of the 30-member delegation to the Vatican meeting, noted that, “The power of the day, which was so remarkable for the feeling of friendship between the Vatican and the Jewish community, was made infinitely more so by the rare privilege of bringing common cause with rabbis from across the denominational spectrum — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.”
First greeted and briefed by Zion Evrony, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Schonfeld explained that, “The satisfaction we all derived by coming together as a Jewish community to represent was palpable. On behalf of the Jewish community, we are sensitive to the fact that we come not only to represent Jewish concerns to the Vatican, but also to build relationships so as to listen to concerns that the Vatican wishes to share with us.”
Following is the text of an interview with Rabbi Schonfeld following her meeting with Pope Francis.
What were your impressions of the pope?
The pope has established important friendships with rabbis in Buenos Aires, including my colleague, Conservative Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book with the new Pope in 2010, On Heaven and Earth, recently translated into English.
The most powerful impression for me was how the pope asked all of us publicly, and repeated to many of us individually, that we pray for him. This is a fascinating trope, already associated with this pope. Pope Francis is very warm and personal, and he inspires a great deal of trust. His humility makes people attach themselves to him. His request for prayers for him is a part of his overall humility, with which he leads. As a part of the whole personae that he creates, this invitation to pray for him invites people to be a part of the sacred way he perceives his work. Pope Francis represents a departure, characteristic of the 21st century, from a vision of leadership that is about the greatness of the man to a vision that is about the interconnectedness of the community.
Because of the strong friendships between Pope Francis and the rabbis he knows well from Argentina, he enters the stage of Catholic-Jewish dialogue with an unprecedented amount of trust and goodwill from the Jewish community. As a consequence, while we must still continue to work through the many issues that will inevitably continue to exist, sometimes on the local level, this has created a new potential for our two religious communities to work together on the many areas of common values that we share. In the few moments I had to speak with the pope directly, I mentioned the courageous work of Catholic nuns, who have been on the forefront in the fight against human trafficking. The President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships took up this issue this past year. The plight of modern day slaves, who now number at least 21 million people around the world, is gaining increasing attention in the public sphere, especially given President Obama’s commitment to the issue. Pope Francis has spoken about related issues as well. Here is an opportunity where Catholics and Jews, inspired by scriptures that we share, can work together to do God’s work in realizing the biblical vision of people freed from slavery.
Why was this meeting important?
The relationship between the Jewish community and the Vatican is one of the most significant inter-religious relationships we have. Through years of hard work, the Jewish and Catholic leaders who led the way in these dialogues over the past decades actually brought about healing in a relationship that was fraught with painful history.
Catholics and Jews have invested a tremendous amount over the past few decades in interreligious dialogue, and much has been accomplished. The spirit of the meeting was one of trust between real friends.
How do you think the Jewish-Catholic relationship is, currently, both in the U.S. and worldwide? Do meetings such as this one, make any difference or serve as a model?
Looking back over the centuries of relationship between the Vatican and the Jewish community, it is remarkable to see how far these relations have come over the years. Today’s relationship would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago.
Several of us took the few free hours we had to spend time in what is known as the “Jewish ghetto” of Rome. There, only minutes from the Vatican, it is almost unfathomable to grasp the distance this relationship has come. The unfathomable suffering that anti-Semitism has wrought upon our people cannot be undone. Jews, in our relationship to the Vatican, face a great challenge — how can we ensure that the memory and the lessons of that suffering are translated into meaningful work that fulfills our highest values?
A short walk from the ghetto, we joined a tour of the Roman ruins. A tourist from Great Britain, seeing the kippot on my colleagues, commented on what these ruins, and especially the Arch of Titus, must mean to us. I told her that the Arch of Titus symbolizes for us a great victory — today, it is merely a ruin, and yet, centuries later, we are still here, bringing the message of our Torah to the world.
Meredith Jacobs is managing editor of JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.