A dozen Jewish leaders and other clerics were invited to meet with Pope Francis one day after his inauguration Tuesday, among them the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said he hopes the pope will lift the “cloud” hanging over the Vatican.
“The Shoah [Holocaust] has been a cloud in Pope John Paul’s day and Pope Benedict’s, and maybe it will now get resolved,” said ADL’s national director Abraham Foxman. “He [Pope Francis] indicated in his book the need to open the archives.”
Pope Francis, 76, is the first Jesuit ever to be chosen pope. He publicly called for the opening of the Vatican archives when he was known as Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio. He said its opening was necessary to learn the true role Pope Pius XII played during the Holocaust.
There have been allegations that Pope Pius XII, who is on track to be canonized by the Church, remained silent despite the mass extermination of Jews and that he was friendly to the Nazis. Others have claimed that he secretly instructed Catholic clergy to hide Jews, and that he did so himself inside the walls of Vatican City.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-authored a book in 2010 with the new pope, “On Heaven and Earth,” told The Jewish Week that they devoted a chapter to analyzing “the attitude of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. [Cardinal Bergoglio’s] answer was, in essence, that we have to wait to open all the archives and analyze all the details regarding this issue.”
Asked if he believes that with his new authority Pope Francis will order the opening of the archives, Rabbi Skorka replied: “I believe yes, that his attitude will be to search for all of the details and to open all the archives. He will use this opportunity to learn the truth.”
Rabbi Skorka said that during his discussion with Cardinal Bergoglio about this issue, “I explained that I could not understand how a person — a spiritual leader — didn’t involve himself more and more during the Shoah [Holocaust]. His answer was, ‘Let us continue searching to reach the truth.’”
Rabbi Skorka was in Buenos Aires this week and did not attend the inauguration, but he said he received a private call from Pope Francis Monday evening, “a couple hours before the ceremony in which he was crowned as pope.”
Among those attending Tuesday’s inaugural Mass was David Michaels, director of inter-communal affairs at B’nai B’rith International.
“It was, as expected, a moment of celebration for Catholics — but it also further signaled the new pope’s personal commitment to the continuance of the unique and historic contemporary friendship between Catholics and Jews,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “Immediately after his election, Pope Francis sent a personal message to this effect to the chief rabbi of Rome; today, not only did Jewish leaders enjoy a place of prominence and proximity to the pope in St. Peter’s Square, but the Jewish community was the only inter-religious partner group of the Catholic Church to be singled out for specific greeting during the pope’s public remarks.”
Michaels said he views this as “a clear continuation of the practice of Benedict XVI — and a sign of allegiance to the momentous path of John Paul II.”
In his letter to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo di Segni, Pope Francis said he “profoundly hopes to be able to contribute to the progress that Jewish-Catholic relations have seen starting from the Second Vatican Council [1962-65], in a spirit of renewed collaboration.”
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Rabbi di Segni said the dialogue between Catholicism and Judaism was “complicated” but added that the new pope’s background “gives me trust and hope” that relations will continue to improve.
He was referring to the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio maintained a close relationship with the Jewish community in Argentina — expressing sympathy after the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center, celebrating Jewish holidays at Buenos Aires synagogues and participating in Kristallnacht observances that marked the state-sponsored attacks on synangogues in Nazi Germany in November 1938.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Pope Francis “represents devotion, the love of God, the love of peace, a holy modesty and a new continent which is now awakening. We need, more than ever, a spiritual leadership and not just a political one.”
Peres invited the pope to visit Israel and said that as “a man of inspiration” he “can add to the attempt to bring peace in a stormy area. … The relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people are now at their best in the last 2,000 years, and I hope they will grow in content and depths.”
Although Israel and the Holy See established diplomatic relations in 1993, some bilateral issues have remained unresolved despite years of negotiation. However, the impasse appears to have been resolved during a meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 29 of the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission. A joint communiqué at the end of the meeting said that “significant progress” had been made in a “thoughtful and constructive atmosphere.” It added that both sides looked forward to a “speedy conclusion” of the talks.
One of those in attendance, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, reportedly said later that the two sides were on the “verge” of finalizing an agreement, which is to establish the juridical rights of the Catholic Church in Israel as well as regulate property and taxation issues.
Ayalon was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying a completed accord — which is subject to ratification by both the Israeli government and the Vatican — would be “nothing short of a milestone.”
Foxman said he too looked forward to that event and pointed out that the relationship between the Vatican and Israel has grown over the years “and it needs to grow more.”
“It was held hostage by the bilateral agreement,” he said. “Now, hopefully, there is an opportunity to celebrate the 20-year relationship in a more dynamic way.”
In his e-mail, Michaels of B’nai B’rith noted that the international Jewish community, both in Israel and the diaspora, was well represented at the inaugural, which he said was “a tribute to the importance we place on Catholic-Jewish relations.”
Foxman said he had not planned to attend, but “when I got a personal invitation, I thought it appropriate to go.”
“The fact that he did reach out and invite us stems from the relationship he had with the Jewish community in Argentina,” he observed. “In his book, he speaks of his commitment to the traditions of John Paul and Benedict. … What is important is that those traditions and changes continue to be institutionalized by the church. The fact that [Pope Francis] comes with such warm baggage gives us further hope that this relationship will only be strengthened.”
Rabbi Skorka said he and Pope Francis have been friends for 20 years and that last October the future pope arranged for him to receive an honorary doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Catolica Argentina (Catholic University of Argentina). Such an award to a rabbi was unprecedented in Latin America and was meant to stress on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council that the council had truly opened the door to a growing rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Judaism.
In his presentation of the honorary doctorate, the rector of Catholic University of Argentina, the Rev. Victor Fernandez said the council’s actions as well as those or recent pope “have been welcomed in Argentina, and Christian institutions can embrace the wisdom of a rabbi.”
In reporting on the event, the newsletter of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World wrote that Rabbi Skorka, 62, and the father of two, thanked the university with a “Hebrew verb meaning ‘to join, connect.’ He evoked family memories and dialogues with Cardinal Bergoglio … [and spoke of the] intellectual courage of Pope Paul II. He said that ‘God is reached by love, and urged [the restoration of] spiritual bonds.’”
Rabbi Skorka told The Jewish Week that the university was founded in the 19th century under the supervision of the Vatican, and that he was the “first Jew so honored … and through me all of the Jewish community.”
Buenos Aires has the largest Jewish community in Latin America. Latin America is also home to 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
“It was an historic moment because under [Cardinal Bergoglio’s] guidance they changed the relationship between the Catholic Church in Argentina and the Jewish community,” Rabbi Skorka said. “It was an impressive sign.”
For a number of years Rabbi Skorka and Bergoglio conducted a televised dialogue “related to all aspects of life,” including politics, God, fundamentalism, death, the Holocaust and capitalism. Rabbi Skorka, who is rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Assembly, said he also invited Bergoglio to join his congregation, Benei Tikva Synagogue, for Selichot services in the days before the High Holy Days and Rosh HaShanah services.
“He gave a special message in the name of the Argentinean Church to my congregants and to all the Jewish community in Buenos Aires,” Rabbi Skorka recalled. “He is very close to all kinds of people in power in Buenos Aires, and he is very open to dialogue with us. He has condemned on several occasions anti-Semitism in a very stark way.”
After the AMIA Jewish community center was bombed in 1994, Cardinal Bergoglio visited the scene several times and expressed condolences for the 85 people killed, the rabbi added.
In 2005, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., praised Cardinal Bergoglio’s leadership, saying: “He was very concerned with what happened.”
That year, Cardinal Bergoglio was the first public personality in Argentina to sign a petition calling for justice in the AMIA bombing case, and was a signatory on a document called “85 victims, 85 signatures.”
Argentine investigators believe officials and diplomats in Tehran planned the bombing, and in 2007 Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for them. Iran refused extradition but last month — subject to the approval of the Iranian parliament — agreed to allow Argentine authorities to question the suspects in Iran.
During a 2010 commemoration of the AMIA bombing, Cardinal Bergoglio called the rebuilt building “a house of solidarity” and stated, “God bless them and help them accomplish their work.”
With Cardinal Bergoglio’s active support, the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Chapel, the main Roman Catholic Church in Argentina’s capital, erected a memorial to that bombing and to the victims of the Holocaust. Towards the rear of the main sanctuary, a large glass-enclosed case in a silver-wrought frame houses several Jewish artifacts, including a menorah, a Star of David, and sheets of prayer books rescued from Treblinka, Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Holocaust memorial, known as the Commemorative Mural, is the only-such tribute to Holocaust victims in a Christian church, according to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
Another rabbi in Buenos Aires, Silvina Chemen, told The Jewish Week she has known Pope Francis for many years and found him to be “a serious man and a very intelligent person — he is very measured. He takes his time in speaking and making his opinions known. He is very respected in Argentina and he reads a lot.”
In fact, she said, two months ago at an event celebrating a newspaper supplement dealing with religious values “he told me that he has my book of commentaries on the Torah by his night table.’”
Rabbi Chemen said she found Pope Francis “open not only to Jewish-Catholic dialogue but to inter-religious dialogue in general. Every Chanukah he is invited to our synagogue and he comes and is very impressive. And he opens his house to meetings with the rabbis.”
In addition, he meets with Jewish community leaders, including Jorge Burkman, executive director of B’nai B’rith in Argentina, whose membership numbers 500 families.
“We work with him on interfaith relations because he is very committed to dialogue,” he told The Jewish Week. “He was always sensitive about Jewish issues. And twice in the cathedral in Buenos Aires he has commemorated Kristallnacht, the last time in November of last year.”
“We have developed a very good relationship since he came to the city of Buenos Aires,” Burkman said.
Pope Francis became the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and a cardinal in 2001. His selection as the 266th pontiff came last week on the fifth ballot of the 115 cardinals who had gathered in Rome to elect a successor for Pope Benedict XVI, who retired last month.
“We have in the cardinal a very good friend, and we hope he can develop the same as a pope,” Burkman added.
During the pope’s years in Argentina, there were allegations that the Catholic Church there had been silent and even complicit during what was known as the “dirty war” of the Argentine military junta in which countless people were murdered or vanished from 1976 until 1983. Rabbi Skoka pointed out that there were even allegations that Cardinal Bergoglio who headed the Jesuit order there from 1973 until 1979 was a member of the church hierarchy that supported or conspired to cover-up the junta’s actions.
“Our book deals with the dictatorship and in it he condemned with very sharp words the behavior of those who went along with the torture and killings,” Rabbi Skorka said.
He stressed that none of the allegations against Cardinal Bergoglio were ever proven and there was no evidence to support the claims. The primary allegation against him was that he was involved in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests who were then held under inhumane conditions. Cardinal Bergoglio claimed that he, in fact, worked secretly to save the lives of the priests and others that he hid from the death squads.
“Not only did he totally deny it, but he also condemned with the sharpest words all of the clergymen and Catholic priests who stood with the killers during the regime,” Rabbi Skorka said.
In Rome this week, Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said he does not believe Pope Francis will address any serious issues. He said such matters are usually left to the Vatican’s secretary of state, who has yet to be appointed.
“The important thing today and tomorrow is simply to demonstrate our good will and ensure the continuation of Pope Francis’ remarkable commitment to and interest in the Jewish people and the dialogue between us,” he wrote in an e-mail from Rome.
Michaels of B’nai B’rith said he too is not looking for anything substantive from the pope this week regarding Catholic relations with other religions.
“Ultimately, it is my hope that he will express deep appreciation for Jews’ national expression — rejecting intensified forms of animus to Israel among too many — and also respect for Jews’ religious sensibilities. In this regard, a most welcome step would be constructive assessment of the content and framing of the Good Friday prayer for Jews’ conversion, in the Latin-language Tridentine Mass,” he said.
Stewart Ain and Steve Lipman are staff writers.