Remarks at IJCIC’s Papal Audience

Pope Francis

Pope Francis, courtesy of Casa Rosada, Wikimedia

June 24, 2013

Remarks of Prof. Lawrence H Schiffman, Chair, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, at IJCIC’s Papal Audience.[*]

Your Holiness, Pope Francis, Cardinal Koch, Father Hofmann, honored past chairs of the International Committee for Interreligious Consultations, fellow officers and colleagues:

As chair of the International Committee for Interreligious Consultations (abbreviated IJCIC), it gives me great pleasure to congratulate Pope Francis on his recent selection as the new leader of the Catholic Church, and I am honored to have the opportunity to say a few words to him representing the Jewish people. As you know, IJCIC is the official Jewish dialogue partner of the Church and we have been privileged to work together for some forty years in advancing through our important work Jewish-Catholic relations in particular, Jewish-Christian relations more widely, and goodwill among humankind as a whole. IJCIC is gratified as well that the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with the State of Israel and ongoing dialogue with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, relationships with a number of Jewish groups (some of which are represented here today), as well as close relations with the local Jewish communities in Rome and throughout Italy.

We are conscious that we meet today with a new pope who enters his role already with close relations with the Jewish community. Some of us had the privilege to participate in your inauguration and remember with gratitude the special welcome to the “ospiti ebraici,” the Jewish guests, who truly were made to feel special that day. Further, when we met you the next day we noticed quickly both your friendliness to everyone whom you greeted and also your special friendship with the Jewish leaders from Argentina. Some of us were with you eleven years ago when the International Liaison Committee meeting of Jewish and Vatican representatives took place in Buenos Aires. We were astounded by the level of Catholic-Jewish cooperation in dispensing charitable aid and we have all heard of the strong stand that you have taken regarding the horrific AMIA bombing. We know that you have written a book together with Rabbi Skorka and since then we have heard from various members of the Jewish community in Argentina of experiences and relationships with you. And we never could have imagined that even before this audience, the first official contact of this kind with world Jewry, you would have already accepted an invitation to visit Israel.

The purpose of our audience today is, on the one hand, to join together in an initial meeting between the Holy Father and representatives of the Jewish people in order to symbolically represent the continuation of our close relationship under a new Bishop of Rome. Yet beyond that important symbolism, we see this as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to carry on our joint agenda of improving Catholic-Jewish relations and of seeking common ground between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church.

Some of us had the opportunity of meeting and speaking with you at the reception following your inauguration; others are meeting you today for the first time. We hope that this meeting will also give us an opportunity to explain briefly a variety of issues and problems where we feel that the Catholic Church and the Jewish community can work together to advance our common goals. However, so often, the key to good intergroup relations may lie in the personal relations of those charged with the leadership of the various groups.  From this point of view, the privilege of meeting with you today will no doubt help greatly to advance our joint work.

Some years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of spending half a semester as a visiting professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, in cooperation with the Pontifical Biblical Institute.  I am still in contact with students from there and, of course, with academic colleagues.  My experience there was not that of a participant in a formalized meeting in which there are essentially teams of Jewish and Catholic participants, but rather was that of a single Jew entering the maze of the Pontifical universities.  I was received with utmost friendship and collegiality and never felt that I was a lone member of another faith.  I was even twice mistaken for a priest, once by a student who called me “Father” and then quickly broke into laughter, and the other time by a beggar who addressed me as “Padre.”  I tell this story not for its inherent humor but rather because I am confident that, like my teaching stint at the Gregorianum in which I had total confidence to enter a Catholic environment, it is a sign of our genuine friendship that you are greeting us at this early period in your pontificate, signaling that you are ready for the church and the Jewish community to continue on the path that we have been treading together. It is truly a sign of our collective confidence that we work together for common goals and that this collective purpose should and does make us comfortable in each other’s company, even when dealing with difficult issues.

This camaraderie was beautifully demonstrated in the two meetings that we conducted in addition to our traditional International Liaison Committee (ILC) meetings over the past two years.  I speak of the two times that a group of IJCIC representatives traveled to Rome in order to expand our acquaintance with Vatican officials and to enlist their help in our activities.  The presence of several of these distinguished Catholic leaders at our Paris ILC meeting, and we hope to see them again at our upcoming Paris meeting, was clearly the result of our deepening relationships.  We also conducted two meetings of Emerging Leaders (young people) from both faiths, one in Castel Gandolfo and one in New York.  These meetings are designed to ensure the future of our relationship, and those of us who were privileged to be there were deeply impressed by both the friendship and the seriousness of the participants.

We see this audience today as following on the positive spirit that the Vatican and the Jewish people have established together.  I am highly gratified by the manner in which our relationship continues to deepen. Some time ago we wrote to Cardinal Bertone, Secretary of State, asking him to help out in a particular situation regarding a member of the Jewish people in very difficult circumstances in another part of the world where the Vatican had contacts. Not only did we receive a positive response in terms of a willingness to help, but sometime later I received what was for me a very touching note from Archbishop Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States, indicating that the Vatican had made its best efforts. If we have come to the point that we can do simple favors for one another, fulfilling what our tradition terms “commandments between human beings,” then I think it is a great tribute to the kind of relationship that we have created and that we continue to foster.

We see this audience as an opportunity, at least briefly, to sketch out and explore with you some issues that are on our communal agenda.  But our overall goal is to utilze this opportunity to begin to set the course for future interaction.  We hope that upon consideration, you will feel as we do that it is time to move beyond the satisfaction that we all feel regarding our excellent relationship, to a stage of working together for common goals. To be frank, after celebrating our forty years of achievement at the Paris ILC meeting, two years ago, we were concerned that we should begin to give attention to focusing not on the past, whether it be the unfortunate or the fortunate, but rather on the future development of our relationship and the education of our communities so that nothing of that unfortunate past can ever be repeated again.

This does not mean that we do not still have to discuss certain problems.  Both of our communities continue to have concerns about our relations with one another, and these should continue to be at the core of our common efforts. I think that we are all in agreement, for example, that the principles of Nostra Aetate have still not gotten across in some geographical areas within the Church, and we in the Jewish community need to continue educating our coreligionists about the changes that have taken place in the Catholic Church’s attitudes toward the Jewish people. Further, we all remain concerned about religious extremism and we need to continue to work together in that area. We thank the Vatican for the strong stand that it has taken regarding all forms of anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism and Holocaust denial, yet we all know that the ugly head of racism and even Nazism continues to be raised in some parts of the world. We take very seriously threats to our religious freedom in situations such as attempts to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter that continue to take place in various places in Europe. We hope to be able to call on our Catholic friends and colleagues to join us in opposing such infractions against our collective freedom. We hope to continue working together on these kinds of issues.

Also, as you know, the Jewish community continues to be concerned about efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII while innumerable documents pertaining to the history of the Church and the Jewish people during the dark years of the Holocaust still remain closed to outside scholarly investigation.  We know of your past statements regarding this problem and we sincerely hope that the promise of the full release of these documents in 2014 that has been made to us will indeed be fulfilled.

Clearly, it is in the nature of our relationship that disagreements and difficulties will always be there.  After all, we disagree about fundamental aspects of our religious commitments, regarding the nature of the divine, our religious obligations (“the law”), and the nature of the end of days.  But our years of meetings, as well as numerous programs held by our constituent organizations with equivalent Catholic organizations, have shown that we share fundamental beliefs regarding such issues as justice, charity, world health, peace and the creation of all humans in the image of God.  Our job now, while continuing to deal with the minor obstacles strewn in our path from time to time, is clearly to chart the better future and to make it happen. This is why we are so happy to be meeting with you today and in some way to be continuing to celebrate your election as Bishop of Rome.

Let me close my remarks with a brief reflection: for Jews, our efforts to improve our relations with other groups essentially have two purposes.  On the one hand, it is simply by principle and by nature our goal to relate to others with whom we share many basic principles with friendship, love and cooperation. After all, our common Scripture commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; cf. Mk. 12:31).This natural gravitation toward friendship with others obtains despite the need of the Jewish people to remain a distinct and committed group.  On the other hand, we seek to engage other religious and national groups out of profound concern for the security of many of our coreligionists and especially that of the State of Israel.  The Bible also commands us, “you shall guard carefully your safety” (Josh. 23:11). These dual concerns, those of ethical principle and the quest for security for our community and our state, will be eternally overshadowed by the fears engendered by the horrible crimes perpetrated against us and the hate with which we have been greeted in some quarters.  With the help of God we have been able to make enormous progress through our efforts together with our Catholic colleagues, realizing an amazing, perhaps miraculous, new relationship.  Our challenge today and in our work together in the future is to solidify that relationship and to find ways to prevent the numerous minor obstacles we face from distracting us from our work.  But perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity that lies before us is to focus not on eliminating the difficulties of the past but on building the cooperation of the future.  For each one of us this involves overcoming different obstacles and limitations.  But as we get down to business, I have to say that my own personal experiences in working with Catholic colleagues through  IJCIC and other contexts have given me confidence that we can succeed when we work together.  It is for this reason that we all feel privileged and honored to represent the world Jewish community through the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations in greeting Your Holiness today. I might also add, now that some of us have been together three times, once in Buenos Aires and twice in Rome, that in Jewish law three occasions is sufficient to constitute a hazakah, a presumption, in this case a presumption of close friendship to which we look forward and for which we thank you.


[*] Dr. Lawrence H Schiffman serves as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University.  He represents the Orthodox Union at IJCIC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *