Vatican watchers in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and in the headquarters of Jewish organisations heaved a sigh of relief on Wednesday evening when they learnt that Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio had just been elected Pope Francis I.
As potential pontiffs go, Cardinal Bergoglio was about the best they could have hoped for.
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires has had a close relationship with the local Jewish community for many years and received prizes for his work to improve understanding between the two religions.
They were certainly some other candidates whom they would have less preferred to see on the pontifical throne, such as Cardinal Angelo Scola, who once called for Jerusalem to be put under international administration.
As the names of potential popes were raised in the days before the conclave, the cardinals’ attitudes towards the Jewish people were also being scrutinised.
Consensus emerged on two issues. The first was that with the exception of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, who has made disparaging remarks on Israel and supposed Jewish control of the media in the past but who was not regarded by anyone in Rome as having a chance of becoming pope, the overwhelming majority of the potential candidates had a good record. They had all been engaged at some time or other in friendly dialogue with Jewish communities, visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. A few are even passable Hebrew-speakers.
The second was that, following the last two popes who were widely regarded (despite a number of disputes) as philosemites, the next leader of the church would only be able to carry on that tradition. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI came on state visits to Israel, both made a point of praying in the Great Synagogue of Rome, both continued to back the decisions of the Second Vatican Council — which clearly stated that the Jews are not guilty of Jesus’s death — and both repeated at every opportunity the closeness of the two religions. It is nearly impossible to see a new pope changing course.
With all the problems facing the new pope, the financial crises in the Vatican, the charges of sexual assault against priests, the physical danger facing Christian communities in Muslim countries, Francis I is much more likely to see the Jewish communities and Israel as potential allies rather than seek confrontation.