The selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be the new pope of the Roman Catholic Church is being seen as a move that will continue to cement Catholic-Jewish relations and perhaps end the debate over the Church’s actions during World War II.
Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis and is the first Jesuit ever to be chosen pope, has publicly called for the opening of the Vatican archives to learn the true role Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. There have been allegations that Pope Pius XII, who is on track to be canonized by the Church, remained silent in the face of 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 with the new Pope in 2010, “On Heaven and Earth,” told The Jewish Week that they devoted a chapter in which they “analyzed the attitude of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. His 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 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.’”
During his years in Argentina, there were allegations that the Catholic church there was silent and even complicit during what was known as the “dirty war” of the Argentine military junta in which countless people were murdered or disappeared from 1976 until 1983. Rabbi Skoka pointed out that there were even allegations that Pope Francis who headed the Jesuit order there from 1973 until 1979 was a member of the church hierarchy and 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 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. 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 it with the sharpest words all of the clergymen and Catholic priests who stood with the killers during the regime,” Rabbi Skorka said.
He said he and Pope Francis have been friends for 20 years and that last October Bergoglio 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 (1962-1965) 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 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.
“It was an historic moment because under his [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. They formed the basis of their book. 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, 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 Bergoglio’s leadership, saying: “He was very concerned with what happened.”
That year, 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, Bergoglio called the rebuilt building “a house of solidarity” and stated, “God bless them and help them accomplish their work.”
With 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.
Elsewhere in the sanctuary, are other framed cases with standard tributes to Catholic individuals and causes. 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. I said, `I read you every week.’”
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.”
At that event, Bergoglio was the keynote speaker and helped to light the menorah.
“We have developed a very good relationship since he came to the city of Buenos Aires,” Burkman said.
Bergoglio became the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and a cardinal in 2001. His selection as the 266th pontiff for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics came on the fifth ballot Wednesday 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.
Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, agreed: “There couldn’t have been a better choice from a Jewish perspective or from a general perspective. We have reason to celebrate,” he said in a statement.
“There never, ever has been a pope with so much [previous] interaction with the Jewish community,” Rabbi Rosen said. “Even John Paul I [who advanced Jewish-Catholic relations to historic levels by such actions as visiting the Rome synagogue and apologizing for Christians’ past anti-Semitism] “didn’t have [the same level of] interaction with the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Rosen, who said he once had a “perfunctory” meeting with Pope Francis, said he has heard “only good things” about the new Pontiff from leaders of the 250,000-member Argentine Jewish community.
Although the new pope spent most of his career in South America, “he grew up in the generation of the Shoah” and is sensitive to the importance of Holocaust commemoration, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, Rabbi Rosen noted.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a prepared statement that there is “much in his record that reassures us about the future.”
Pope Francis, who was born to a family of Italian immigrants in Argentina, was considered a favorite for the papacy eight years ago when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II. But many were surprised by his selection this year.
A “compassionate conservative” dedicated to social justice, he is described as a humble man who would encourage priests to engage in “shoe-leather evangelization.” He is also a staunch defender of the church's traditional sexual teachings on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception.
While problems remain in Jewish-Catholic relations, including the Church’s support for the Latin Mass that calls for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side and a veteran of interfaith work, said he believes “the spirit of Vatican II will prevail” under Pope Francis.
“I’m confident that the track that has been laid … will be continued and maybe even advanced,” Rabbi Schneier added.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, voiced concern that Catholic-Jewish relations might “get lost in the midst” of other urgent issues facing the church, including reorganizing the Curia [Church administration], dealing with the sex abuse scandals and the alienation of Europeans from church life.
“We just don’t know,” he said.
“His focus on the poor should be a good point of religious contact with Jews,” Rabbi Korn added. “After all, kindness and attention to the poor is a core Jewish value out of the Torah. Moreover, there are increasing numbers of poor Jews in America and Israel.”
Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski, an Argentine native and executive director of the Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-el, told The Jewish Week that the new pope “is known in Argentina as somebody with integrity who has stood strong against the excesses of the current administration [of President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner] and has been good to the poor and needy.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a prepared statement that there is “every reason to be confident Pope Francis will be a staunch defender of the historic Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, which forever changed the relationship of the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Schneier said Bergoglio’s elevation to pope, and the growing presence of New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, indicate a “shift” in the Catholic Church from a focus in Europe, which has a conservative approach to interfaith relations, to the more open-spirit of the Americas.
Some 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, which is said to be rapidly losing adherents.
“We have in a way relations that have matured much more than in other parts of the globe,” Rabbi Schneier observed.