One of the first things Argentinian native Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did after being elected pope on March 13 was to send a message of friendship to Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni -- and, by extension, the Jewish people.
"I sincerely hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council," wrote Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis.
By inviting Rome's rabbi to the papal installation at the Vatican, Pope Francis said he hoped to contribute to "a spirit of renewed collaboration" with the Jewish people.
Indeed, since being elected the head of the Roman Catholic Church last month, Pope Francis has captured the attention of the world press, with headlines touting his acts of humility resulting in high approval ratings around the globe. This includes the world Jewish community, where he has garnered accolades for his positive history with the Argentine Jewish community.
On March 19, I sat next to Rabbi Di Segni under a warm Italian sun in St. Peter's Square as part of a small Jewish delegation invited to observe the remarkable religious ceremony that officially installed the new spiritual leader for the world's billion-plus Roman Catholics. Pope Francis, 76, was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the world in February by announcing his resignation -- the first pope to do so in more than 600 years.
During his installation, Pope Francis singled out the Jewish delegation in the audience from among the other non-Christian representatives in thanking them for coming. The next day Pope Francis invited our Jewish delegation, as well as representatives of other faith groups -- including Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Protestants, Evangelicals and Hindus and Sikhs, to meet with him at the Vatican.
Francis specifically mentioned his church's close relationship with the Jewish people during his opening address, where he said:
"And now I turn to you distinguished representatives of the Jewish people, to which we are joined in a very special spiritual bond, since, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, the Church of Christ acknowledges that 'the beginnings of her faith and her election are already, according to the divine mystery of salvation, in the Patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets. Thank you for your presence, and I am confident that, with the help of the Almighty, we will be able to continue profitably that fraternal dialogue that the Council advocated and that has actually been accomplished, bringing many fruits, especially in recent decades."
In one sense, these words are extraordinary coming from a new pope. But in another sense, Pope Francis' warm outreach to the Jewish people is wholly consistent with the many gestures, words and acts of friendship from his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.
It is consistent with the positive path of reconciliation taking place between Jews and Catholics since the Second Vatican Council in 1965 approved the declaration called Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate (Latin for "In Our Time") states that Jews remain most dear to God, acknowledges the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people made at Mt. Sinai, rejects anti-Semitism at any time by anyone as contrary to Christianity and declares that Jews were never collectively cursed by God for the death of Jesus.
Francis' outreach to Jews also comes as no surprise for those who had followed his career as Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, where he celebrated various Jewish holidays with the Argentine Jewish community, including Chanukah, where he lit a candle on the menorah, attended a Buenos Aires synagogue for Slichot, a pre-Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) service, as well as a commemoration of Kristallnacht, the wave of violent Nazi attacks against Jews before World War II.
He also expressed strong solidarity with Argentina's Jewish community following the deadly 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center. In 2010, during a commemoration of the tragedy, Cardinal Bergoglio called the site "a house of solidarity."
We at ADL know Cardinal Bergoglio's graciousness from a personal perspective. He corresponded with our late Interfaith Director Rabbi Leon Klenicki, an Argentine and a pioneer in Catholic-Jewish relations, and he attended a memorial service for Rabbi Klenicki in Buenos Aires in 2009.
Indeed, Pope Francis' close relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people is perhaps best exemplified in a remarkable book he wrote with the Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
The book, "On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century," which has just been translated into English for the first time, is being published on April 19 by Image Books.
The book will be released simultaneously in print, digital, and audio formats in the U.S. and Canada. A Spanish-language edition, titled Sobre el Cielo y la Terra, will also be issued in the United States and Canada by Vintage Espanol, also a Random House Inc. imprint, in print and digital formats.
The Anti-Defamation League is proud to have played a role in bringing the book to the English speaking world.
"On Heaven and Earth" captures a series of fascinating conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka on a wide range of issues important to both people of religion, and of no religion.
The cardinal and the rabbi discuss such important subjects such as the nature of God, fundamentalism, the Holocaust, science, politics, globalization, poverty, interfaith dialogue, and future of religion.
They also tackle controversial issues including same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.
Whether or not one agrees with the positions taken by Cardinal Bergoglio on these issues, the book offers an unprecedented insight into the thinking of the man who now leads the Catholic Church and is arguably the most influential religious figure on Earth.
One can see throughout their dialogue how the cardinal and the rabbi show each other great respect and affection. Some of the exchanges are quite touching.
Equally as important, both maintain their personal religious integrity while grappling with profound issues. As Cardinal Bergoglio says: "With [Rabbi] Skorka I never had to leave my Catholic identity behind, just as he didn't have to ignore his Jewish identity. Our challenge was to proceed with respect and affection, trying to be above reproach as we walked in the presence of God."
Indeed, this book serves as a wonderful model for honest and productive interfaith dialogue.
In the coming months Catholic and Jewish leaders will begin discussing preparations for the 50th anniversary commemoration of Nostra Aetate. We believe it is extremely important that this event is given the greatest attention and is properly celebrated throughout the world, acknowledging the document's historic role in fostering positive interfaith relations.
Given what Pope Francis has already achieved, we are confident we will be climbing together towards the next level of positive dialogue between Catholic and Jews.