A rabbi and a priest walk into an independence day celebration….
That, literally, is how one the most high-profile interfaith friendships in the world today started. More specifically, the bond that Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina cemented with the man who would become Pope Francis began as so many male friendships do: over sports.
It was in the late 1990s, that Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires, was invited to attend the Te Deum, celebrated by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the anniversary of Argentina's May Revolution. Skorka went as a representative of the Jewish community. When Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio - now known as Pope Francis - asked the faith leaders present about their favorite soccer teams to lighten the mood, Skorka replied honestly, "My team is River Plate" — one of the more hopeless athletic causes in Argentina.
"Their fans are called 'chickens,'" Skorka related during an October 28 interview with the Forward while on a visit to New York. As each cleric rose to shake hands with the archbishop at the ceremony's conclusion, Bergoglio, a San Lorenzo fan, looked straight at the rabbi when he congratulated the Catholic leader on his speech. "I guess this year," the future pope kidded him, "we are going to eat chicken soup."
That was the moment Skorka realized he was looking at someone special. "Behind this joke," he recalled, "I realized that Bergoglio was saying, 'The door is open.' And so that was the beginning."
More than a decade later, Skorka finds himself in the position of offering his fellow Jews a lens through which to understand the new leader of the Catholic faith. His own close-up view has continued since Bergoglio's ascension to the Holy See last March. This spring, Skorka will even join Pope Francis on his inaugural papal trip to Israel.
"As pilgrims to Israel, we are dreaming of certain moments," Skorka related. Among the things he and Pope Francis look forward to is "to pray together in front of the Kotel," he said, referring to the remnant of the ancient Temple's Western Wall, a Jewish holy site. Skorka plans also to accompany the Pope to Bethlehem, to show respect for the role of Christian history in the Holy Land.
Their friendship-based interfaith dialogue will be the theme of an October 29 talk Skorka will give at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York called "Pope Francis and the Jews." In his presentation, Skorka will discuss how the newly elected Pontiff relates to the Chosen people.
According to Skorka, he does. A lot. "In the few months that he is already Pope we heard, we saw, we witnessed very strong declarations against anti-Semitism," said Skorka. "He is also stressing the deep relationship between Judaism and Christianity."
Privately, Skorka added, the two are trying to come up with a theological definition of what a Christian means to a Jew — and vice versa — as well as what the state of Israel means to Catholics, all from a spiritual point of view.
Unbeknown to a public hungry for information about the new Pope's worldview from the moment of his election by fellow Cardinals, many of Francis' views were out there even before white smoke billowed up from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, announcing they had chosen. In 2010, Bergoglio and Skorka co-authored the book, "On Heaven and Earth," a collection of the two clerics' discussions over the years on hot-button issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to fundamentalism, to abortion and gay marriage to the Vatican's role in the preventing the Holocaust.
The last topic, said Skorka, is an issue that weighs heavily on the Pope's mind. In "On Heaven and Earth" Francis agrees wholeheartedly with Skorka's suggestion that Pope Pius XII's personal archives — often referred to as the Vatican's Secret Archives — be fully opened so that historians can objectively determine if Pius and the Church could have done more to save Europe's Jews.
"What you say about the archives relating to the Shoah seems perfect to me," Bergoglio says in the book. "They should open them and clarify everything."
Since ascending to the papacy, Francis has hinted of his continued wish for transparency on Pius XII, but no concrete actions have yet followed. Skorka is unfazed. "Pope Francis is a coherent person," he said. "Everything he says, he does."
In fact, Skorka added, Francis reiterated his convictions during their last conversation, only a couple of weeks ago. "He told me, we have to search them," said Skorka. "But," the Pope added, "when we analyze Pope Pius XII's behavior, we must also analyze the behavior of the occidental leaders who forsook the Jewish people."
Skorka respects his friend's struggle with this issue. But the rabbi is concerned about the possible canonization of Pope Pius as a saint of the Church. Pius, who led the Church from 1939 to 1958, has been the subject of a furious debate spanning decades regarding the actions he took — or failed to take — to save Jewish lives during World War II and oppose the Nazis' campaign of mass extermination against Europe's Jews. Individual Catholics and Jews are partisans on both sides of this debate.
In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI declared Pius XII to be "venerable," the second of four steps on the path to sainthood. And an August 1 article in the National Catholic Register, citing an anonymous source in the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, reported that Pope Francis was considering invoking a procedure by which he could, on his own authority, leapfrog Pius XII over the other steps and make him a saint.
Skorka appears to be no fan of this prospect. "I cannot accept from Pius XII his silence during the Shoah," he said.
In September, the Pope raised eyebrows among Conservative Catholics when he declared that the Church should move away from its single-minded emphasis on issues like gay marriage and abortion, and focus instead on spiritual healing through wider dialogue with both Church faithful and the rest of the word. It was a clear break with the approach taken by his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI and even his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
"Pope Francis, as far as I know him, will go ahead with what he considers he must do," said Skorka. "He is a very traditional Catholic leader, but at the same time, what he does is try to maintain a dialogue, to build a bridge across to all Catholics, all the nations and all the peoples. The keyword in his ideology is dialogue."
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The Argentinean Pope and Rabbi share a dream: "to pray together" both at the Western Wall of the Temple (the Wailing Wall or Kotel in Hebrew ), the most sacred site for Jews outside of the Temple Mount itself, and at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, one of the most sacred sites in the world for Christians.
They discussed their dream, and the Pope's historic "pilgrimage" to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, May 24-26, over a kosher lunch, in a private room, in the Santa Marta Vatican guesthouse where the Bishop of Rome lives.
"We are on our way to realizing the dream. The details (of the papal trip) have yet to be finalized, but everything is moving ahead in a positive way", Skorka confided afterwards. Politically it's not a problem, but quite how all this can be done has yet to be worked out.
In the course of their conversation, they returned to a topic that they had already touched on during his visit here last September, how to give a message of peace to the inhabitants of a region where passions run high and conflicts exist. "We exchanged ideas about how we could give a message of peace, hope and faith to the world in general and, especially, to the Holy Land", he said.
They talked too about dialogue and Jewish-Catholic relations, and discussed how academic links could be forged between the Rabbinic Seminaries in Latin America and the Pontifical Universities in Rome, beginning with the Jesuit-run Gregorian University, where Skorka, who is rector of the Latin American rabbinic seminary in Buenos Aires, had given a lecture the previous day.
"I think these are things that should not be hidden, because our idea is to make a contribution to what dialogue means, to what spirituality means, and what the things of the soul mean, as well as the search for God", he said.
They had engaged in this kind of dialogue over many years in Buenos Aires, and published an interview book together – "On heaven and earth". Today, however, "there is a difference because my friend is Pope, but we follow through with this commitment, though now at a global level", Skorka said.
He said he was pleased to see his friend "looking well, serene, relaxed, very concentrated on his agenda, not at all nervous, and very sure of what he's doing."
He found him even more affectionate than ever towards Argentineans now than he was even before, and one shows he's missing his homeland through the special attention he gives to all the Argentinians who come to visit him. They saw that clearly the previous day, January 16, when Skorka and several other Argentinean rabbis with their wives met the Pope, had lunch and chatted together for more than two hours during which the Rabbis sang for him. "He was so full of affection and joy".
Over lunch last Friday, the Rabbi and his wife chatted with Francis about Argentina. "He's totally informed about the reality of the country", Skorka observed. Among other things, they discussed how to develop more ways of giving assistance to the needy in Argentina, also in the interior of the country. "Our vision is to give support to Argentinean society", he added.
His wife Silvia had not met Bergoglio since he left Buenos Aires last February to come to Rome for the conclave. She said she was particularly struck "by the inner peace that he transmits and which he says he feels, above and beyond the enormous responsibility he now has as head of the Catholic Church."