As the first Argentine Pope, Francis I comes from a country where there are 230,000 Jews in a country of 37 million, of whom 80 per cent are Catholic.
The new Pope is likely to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He was appointed cardinal by John Paul II in 2001 and is a Latin American with Italian roots, who studied in Germany. His spoken English is good.
As far as Christian-Jewish relations are concerned, he has participated in meetings organised by the Latin American Council of Bishops, the Anti-Defamation League and the Latin American Jewish Congress.
He was praised by the Jewish community for his compassionate response to one of the worst antisemitic attacks in Latin America: the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of a seven-story building housing the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association and the Delegation of the Argentine Jewish Association. With Jorge 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. And twice in the cathedral in Buenos Aires he has commemorated Kristallnacht.
The new Pope also delivered a major address at a meeting of International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Buenos Aires in 2004 on the theme Tzedeq and Tzedeqa (Justice and Charity) and encouraged all participants to visit the site of the bombing.
Whatever changes he is intending, the important gains in Catholic-Jewish relations since Nostra Aetate in 1965, and especially since the election of Pope John Paul II, are not in danger.
Pope Francis will appeal to conservatives as a man who had held the line against liberalising currents, and to moderates as a symbol of the church’s commitment to the developing world. His desire for personal simplicity — he chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace — and his support for social justice are likely to be features of his papacy.
Within hours of being elected, Pope Francis I expressed a desire to build bridges with the Jewish community, writing to Riccardo di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, that he “eagerly hopes to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council”.
As cardinal, he preached in a synagogue twice, spoke at Holocaust commemorations and visited Israel.
Until this week, little attention had been paid to the only book written by the Pope, Sobre El Cielo Y La Tierra (‘Regarding Heaven and Earth’), which consists of a conversation between him and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano.
In the book, the future pontiff addresses the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust, Argentina’s so-called dirty war and the Middle East conflict. He shows familiarity with Judaism, especially Abraham Joshua Heschel, and in a conversation about the Holocaust he says the question which must be asked is not “Where was God?” but, “Where was man?” “The great powers just washed their hands — they knew much more than they said they did,” Francis I says.
On interfaith relations, the new Pope urges the active participation of other faiths in formal events such as the installation of a bishop, so that they should not just stand “like dolls in an exhibition case”. He and Rabbi Skorda have been friends for 20 years and he invited the rabbi to speak to Catholic seminary students.
In 2011, Bergoglio arranged for him to receive an honorary doctorate from Catholic University of Argentina. Such an award for a rabbi was unprecedented in Latin America and suitably marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, when the Council opened the door to the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People.
So, it seems that relations with Jews are likely to remain warm and to receive encouragement from the new Pope. “I did not have the same experience as John Paul II of having half of my friends as Jewish, but I have Jewish friends,” he says. Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, agreed: “There never, ever has been a pope with so much previous interaction with the Jewish community.”