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Pope Francis & Rabbi Skorka: Forging a Deeper Relationship

"The Grandeur that You See in the Other"

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

There may come a moment in long-standing interfaith friendships when individuals deeply devoted to their religious traditions notice how the differences that separate them from their dialogue partner begin to recede or even dissolve. While recognizing that philosophical and religious differences still exist, they begin to experience a form of familiarity and kinship that supersedes religion, dogma, tradition, and history.

Such a moment occurred between Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, whom the press likes to call “the Pope’s rabbi.” He was born and raised in Argentina, the son of immigrants from Poland. Today Rabbi Skorka is the rector of the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, which trains Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators in the Latin American Jewish community.

Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka greet each other  – Photo: Catholic Philly

Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka greet each other – Photo: Catholic Philly

Rabbi Skorka has known Pope Francis since he was Archbishop Bergoglio. Starting in the mid-1990s, they often met at celebrations of state ceremonies in Argentina. After connecting, they soon discovered they were interested in many similar subjects, including theology and an ongoing enthusiasm for rival soccer teams, they both like to point out.

They didn’t bond over soccer, however. Their intellectual and theological curiosity led them to plumb their holy texts together. In the process, they discovered they also shared a mutual appreciation for interfaith dialogue, “without apology or hiding,” as Rabbi Skorka describes it. In fact, their interfaith friendship ultimately steered them to co-author a book on interfaith dialogue, titled On Heaven And Earth (2013).

Travelling Together

Breaking tradition from the very beginning of his papacy, the unpredictable Pope invited both Rabbi Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, a Muslim cleric from Buenos Aires, to accompany him to the Holy Land in May 2014, marking the first time a Pope has ever invited other religious leaders to join an official papal visit. The Pope addressed both Israelis and Palestinians, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Making a special point of visiting the wall that divides the two peoples, the world eagerly watched to see how H.H. would deal with the current political standstill of one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.

Acknowledging freely that they don’t always see eye to eye on certain issues, Rabbi Skorka and the Pope are both acutely aware of the PR value provided by their trip to the Holy Land and their continuing friendship, at first for the Argentine community and now for the world at large

“Today, both Pope Francis and I believe that we must work to revitalize the type of conversations between our faiths that existed from the beginning of the first century into the second century,” Rabbi Skorka wrote in an article published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal during his visit last January, just a month shy of the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s historic proclamation Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). “Only by coming to the table with open minds can we truly understand the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that goes back 2000 years, to understand who the other is, and the significance each faith holds for the other.”

Among other important declarations on the relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate condemned anti-Semitism, canceled the imperative to convert Jews, and even acknowledged Jews as the Catholics’ “older brothers.” It was a groundbreaking document which may help to explain the Pope’s predilection for a frequent phrase he uses: “Inside every Christian is a Jew.”

Rabbi Skorka’s came to the U.S. recently, on a tour sponsored by Masorti Olami, a global organization that promotes Conservative Judaism in places such as Europe, Latin America and Israel, where Orthodox practices predominate.

Pope Francis embraces Sheik Omar Abboud and Rabbi Skorka at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – Photo: AFP PHOTO / Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis embraces Sheik Omar Abboud and Rabbi Skorka at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – Photo: AFP PHOTO / Osservatore Romano

During his stay in LA, as a guest speaker at Loyola Marymount University, he was asked to describe a highlight of their Holy Land trip together. The Rabbi chose not to speak about the political implications of that visit. Instead he cited a more intimate moment he shared with the Pope in the Church where Jesus was supposed to have celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, above the Tomb of David, on Mt. Zion. Noting that usually the Pope conducts mass for thousands and tens of thousands, “on that occasion, however, the Pope led mass for just a few of us who were present. I was deeply moved by the sacred silence of that moment,” the rabbi recalled. “I stood beside him and learned humility from him in that silence and in the quality of the silence. Interfaith dialogue is the most valuable when you can accept the grandeur that you see in the other.”

Perhaps the most fascinating development in their friendship, however, occurred in the Vatican itself, in the fall of 2014.

Rabbi Skorka had been invited to attend an important dialogue to be held at the Vatican, which included dinner. Realizing that it would fall on the eve of the last day of Succoth, called “Shimini Atzeret,” the rabbi called the Pope to request permission to stay overnight in the Vatican for religious reasons. He explained he could not travel on the holiday and the nearest hotels were too far away for him to walk.

 “Of course, my friend, you’ll stay in the Vatican,” the Pope responded immediately, “even if I won’t be there.”

Kosher wine and challah bread – Photo: Chabad.org

Kosher wine and challah bread – Photo: Chabad.org

Following his election as the new head of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, Pope Francis had a surprise for everyone. Preferring not to occupy the Vatican’s traditional papal quarters, he installed himself instead in a nearby hotel which meant that Rabbi Skorka would be his guest at the Vatican even though the Pope would not be there himself.

Rabbi Skorka then added some other essential information to their conversation. “I will have to say the ‘kiddush’ (blessing over the wine) and the ‘motzei’ (blessing over the bread) at the beginning of the meal, which means I’ll have to bring in special kosher wine and challah bread.”

“Of course, my friend,” the Pope said, “whatever you need to do, you’ll do.”

So the Rabbi arrived at the Vatican to spend the night, suitcase in tow, laden with enough kosher wine and challah to share with everyone at the table. The Pope seated Rabbi Skorka next to him, on his right, and the evening meal began with Rabbi Skorka’s Hebrew blessings in the presence of the cardinals and archbishops in attendance.

And that night the Rabbi slept in the Vatican. It was a “first.”

Their friendship continues to grow. They email each other frequently and often talk on the phone, as good friends do. But perhaps the most revealing moment in their relationship occurred in a recent email the rabbi received. His voice was overcome with emotion as he shared details of the story at the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles.

“Archbishop Bergoglio, as I knew him then in Argentina, and Pope Francis, as I know him today, would always began each of his letters to me with the same salutation: ‘Querido Amigo’ (Dear Friend).

“But in his most recent email to me, he began with a new salutation: ‘Querido Hermano’ (Dear Brother).”

From friend to brother, the interfaith path holds great rewards for those with courage, persistence, and the willingness to see the grandeur in the other.