One of the first official acts of the newly installed Pope Francis was to reach out to the Jewish community of Rome, as his predecessor Pope Benedict had done, and he is being greeted warmly by many Jewish leaders worldwide. For most of the last 1,500 years, though, Catholic-Jewish relations have not been so warm. In fact, there was a time when the Catholic Church was rocked with a scandal: It was alleged that the Pope himself was Jewish.
But that was almost 1,000 years ago, and the first order of business is to note how well received Pope Francis has been by Jews around the world.
The Religions News Services reported on March 14th that “Jews worldwide see an ally in Pope Francis,” pointing “in particular to his sympathetic and strong reaction to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in his native Argentina -- the deadliest bombing in the country’s history.”
Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, said, “As far as I have heard and read in the few minutes since he was elected pope, he has shown deep signs of respect and friendship towards the Jews. It’s a good starting point.”
According to Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis “has had a warm relationship with the Jewish community of Argentina, and enjoyed close friendships with many prominent rabbis.”
And David Novak, a professor of Jewish Studies and philosophy at the University of Toronto, expressed his hopes that Francis would improve “on his predecessor’s prioritization of Jewish-Catholic relations,” pointing back to the papacy of John Paul II as the highest point achieved in these relations. It was John Paul who recognized the State of Israel in 1997 and was the first pope “to visit Auschwitz, to bless Israel, and to apologize for Christian acts against Jews.”
“If the Catholics don’t canonize him,” Novak said, “the Jews should.”
Sentiments like this, of course, were not always the norm for the Catholic Church and the Synagogue (to put it mildly), as Matt, a listener to my radio show, reminded me last week via email. With evident passion, he told me that, “You Jews are Christ-killers on the road to eternal condemnation,” referring to me as a “blasphemer and murder[er] of the Lord God Jesus Christ.” (This is because I am both Jewish and a follower of Jesus, but in Matt’s mind, the former must cancel out the latter.)
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.