A Pope and a Rabbi

Originally at: http://ncronline.org/print/blogs/all-things-catholic/riveting-theater-geneva-popes-rabbi-jewishcatholic-relations

by John Allen

Also on Thursday, an old friend of Pope Francis came calling on him in Rome. Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires led a delegation of Jewish leaders from Argentina into an audience with the pope, with whom he co-authored the 2010 book On Heaven and Earth while Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Skorka said while the delegation had some serious business to discuss, they also spent time joking and chatting with their old Argentine friend, even festively singing a few verses from the psalms together. In a gesture of hospitality, the pope treated the group to a lunch at his residence in the Casa Santa Marta catered by Ba’ Ghetto, a famous kosher restaurant in Rome.

(For the record, the restaurant’s owner said Francis was especially impressed with the pistachio mousse.)

Skorka delivered a public lecture on Jewish/Catholic relations Thursday night at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University, accompanied by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads the Vatican office that deals with ecumenism and relations with Jews. Skorka and Koch also took part in a brief press conference afterward.

Here are three quick impressions from the event.

First, during the Benedict years, it seemed that the drift in official Catholic policy on relations with other religions was away from specifically theological conversation toward what Benedict XVI called “intercultural” dialogue, meaning a focus on shared values on social, moral and even political matters.

The idea was that theology tends to be where followers of different religions are destined to disagree, while a focus on cultural and moral questions puts the accent on what they have in common.

Both Skorka and Koch said Thursday night, however, that they believe the future of Catholic/Jewish relations lies precisely in the theological arena. Skorka said he talked with Francis at the end of September, and that “what the pope wanted to convey to me is the importance of new theological steps.”

“We need a theological explanation of what a Jew is to a Catholic, and what a Catholic is to a Jew,” Skorka said.

Koch made much the same point at the press conference.

“The next step has to be a deepening of our theology,” Koch said. “We need a Christian theology of Judaism and a Jewish theology of Christianity.”

“I’m convinced Pope Francis wants to go in that direction,” Koch said.

At least vis-à-vis Judaism, therefore, it would seem that rumors of the death of theology as the heart of interreligious dialogue have been greatly exaggerated.

Second, the focus of Skorka’s lecture was the Latin American experience of Jewish/Catholic relations. (Argentina is somewhat unique in Latin America in that it has a sizeable Jewish community, estimated today at roughly 250,000.)

In the course of his talk, Skorka made a fascinating observation without really developing it, which was that while Jewish/Catholic exchanges in the West often pivot on the past — the history of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and so on — the focus in Latin America is more on the present.

Skorka noted that a 2004 meeting of the International Jewish Catholic Liaison Committee, one of the primary vehicles for dialogue at the global level, was held in Buenos Aires. Afterward, he said, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who held Koch’s job at the time, said it had been “the first meeting not to focus on past issues but rather how to join forces to face the dramatic needs of the present and future.”

In part, Skorka suggested, this focus reflected the climate in Argentina created by the economic crisis that erupted in the late 1990s, which caused widespread unemployment, riots and the collapse of the government, leaving half the country’s population and 70 percent of its children in poverty.

“The crisis created a situation in which religious institutions were called upon to work together in a very deep way,” Skorka said. “There was lots of coordinated work to help people in dire need.”

“Something interesting happened” in the middle of the economic meltdown, he said.

“Society started to ask who can we really trust, and religious institutions came to the fore,” Skorka said, adding that the situation induced religious leaders to develop “a tremendously pragmatic” form of dialogue.

For those who wonder if Jewish/Catholic relations can ever really escape the ghosts of history, in other words, perhaps voices from the developing world may have something to contribute.

Third, Skorka was asked about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the Holy Land in May, and his reaction seemed to offer another confirmation of just how high the stakes will be.

“It’s very sensitive,” he said. “There are lots of passions and feelings on all sides … the expectations are very high, and somehow the pope will have to respond to them.”

Given the competing visions in the region among “Jews, Palestinians and Christians,” Skorka said, Francis “needs to be very balanced” in his approach.

Skorka said his primary concern for the trip is that it doesn’t end up as a “banality,” by which he seemed to mean an exercise in saying the right things that don’t really have any impact on the ground.

“It will be hard, but what I hope is for him to leave a message of peace,” Skorka said. “Especially in his meetings with leaders, I hope he can have an impact.”

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