On the evening before his inauguration last month, Pope Francis made a call to an old friend in Buenos Aires.
“Hello, it’s Bergoglio. They trapped me here in Rome and they won’t let me come home,” he told Rabbi Abraham Skorka, whom he has known for 20 years.
It was, said the rabbi, a characteristic opening from the Pope, whom he describes as “modest and direct” but ready with a joke.
In fact, thinking back to the early days when the two men hardly knew each other, it is another joke that the rabbi most vividly recalls. They first met in the mid-1990s when members of different faiths were invited each year to the Catholic cathedral in Buenos Aires to celebrate Argentinian independence.
“We began to get to know each other a bit and then I remember that he made a joke before the Te Deum when he came to say hello,” said Rabbi Skorka, who is now rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Argentina.
In Buenos Aires, football is monumentally important and everybody follows a club. The Pope is a fan of San Lorenzo and Rabbi Skorka supports River Plate, known as “chickens” to rivals.
“Bergoglio looked at me and said: ‘I think this year we’re going to eat chicken soup,’” Rabbi Skorka revealed. “It was funny and, after that, we began to get to know each other better.”
In the decades since then, the two men have been instrumental in improving relations between Catholics and Jews in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish population in Latin America. It has been an era in which conventions have been broken and precedents set. In 2004 and 2007, for example, Rabbi Skorka invited Cardinal Bergoglio to attend the selichot services before Rosh Hashanah.
“It was historic because it was the first time an Archbishop of Buenos Aires had been to a synagogue to give his reflections to a Jewish community.”
Then, last year, Cardinal Bergoglio awarded Rabbi Skorka an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Buenos Aires.
“This was the first time it had been awarded to a Jew or a rabbi in Latin America,” said Rabbi Skorka. “It was Bergoglio’s move, he promoted it and it was a very strong sign.”
Another unusual step was the decision made by Cardinal Bergoglio that Rabbi Skorka, rather than a fellow Catholic, should write the prologue to El Jesuita, the book of interviews with Cardinal Bergoglio, published in 2010.
“I asked him why he had made this decision, and he said: ‘Because that is what came from my heart’. That was very powerful, it touched me deeply.”
It was around that time that the two men decided to collaborate on a book, On Heaven and Earth, which is due to be published by Bloomsbury in the UK next month.
“I had thought to do a book on theological and philosophical themes and I asked Bergoglio to write a chapter,” said Rabbi Skorka.
Instead, the cardinal suggested that they should write a book together. The resulting work is presented as a series of conversations between Rabbi Skorka and Cardinal Bergoglio on topics ranging from clerical celibacy to the Holocaust.
According to Rabbi Skorka, antisemitism is “the only kind of thing that makes him really angry”, along with “any kind of fanaticism”.
The outlook could not be brighter for Jewish-Catholic relations. “There is a lot of hope around now,” said Rabbi Skorka.