Views of CCJR Members

The Pope and the Jewish people: "We are strangers no more, but friends’"

From The Tablet


Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s relations with the Jewish community were warm even before he became Bishop of Rome. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he attended the Rosh Hashanah service in 2007 and his compassionate response to one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks to have taken place in Latin America, the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of a seven-storey building housing the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, was deeply appreciated.

As Pope, he has epitomised the words of German theologian Johannes Metz: “Christian theology after Auschwitz must stress anew the Jewish dimension of Christian beliefs and must overcome the forced blocking-out of the Jewish heritage within Christianity.” In 2014 he told the Jewish community of Rome: “It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are in part Jewish. A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic! May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman!”

Francis’ visit to Auschwitz in 2016 was a deeply contemplative occasion. The two hours passed in total silence, except for a few words Francis exchanged with camp survivors and Holocaust rescuers. The Holocaust continues to raise questions about God’s presence or absence, God’s power and freedom. And, I think, God’s silence as well. And maybe this is why Francis was silent at Auschwitz: perhaps he was listening carefully to God’s silence.

I have met Pope Francis on three occasions. Each time I have come away with the realisation that he intuitively knows that among ordinary Jews and Christians there is less interest in the theological reflections and intellectual musings that so intrigued Pope Benedict XVI, than in a metaphorical hug and a kiss.

His pastoral gifts are extraordinary. This was demonstrated in 2016 when he visited the Rome synagogue on 17 January (an annual “day of Judaism” in the Catholic Church in Italy) and simply said, “We are one family” and “shabbat shalom”. It was enough for the Jewish community to acclaim him as one of their own. Francis has continued on the path of reconciliation carved out by his predecessors. For Jews, the traditional view that Christianity is simply hostile has been replaced by a realisation that dialogue, even partnership, with Christians is possible.

“Ours is a spiritual journey,” Francis says of his friendship with rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. “Like him, I don’t much like the protocol, and like him I go for the essentials.” The rabbi and the Pope have done many things together, and the book based on their public dialogues, On Heaven and Earth, has been translated into several languages, including Hebrew.

Pope Francis seeks a genuine religious conversation, a physical and spiritual encounter that involves a mutual respect that takes the other as seriously as one demands to be taken oneself. This is no easy task. It requires

presence – personal engagement is his priority and he often takes time to greet participants individually, sometimes hundreds of people, leaving his advisors looking at their watches with increasing concern as the papal schedule is further delayed. Some years ago, I participated with the then British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in a papal audience with Benedict XVI. I was moved intellectually; with Francis, I am moved spiritually.

Francis regularly talks about dialogue. “Dialogue is born when I am capable of recognising others as a gift of God and accept they have something to tell me,” he has tweeted. For Francis, conversations with Jews are an opportunity for dialogue and a chance to re-affirm God’s covenant with the Jewish people. He seeks a relationship based not merely on a lack of hostility but on an enthusiastic embrace of values held in common; not on a lack of suspicion but on the creation of trust – a shared mission, critical solidarity and mutual affirmation. He has reminded Jews and Christians that “we are strangers no more, but friends and brothers and sisters … All Christians have Jewish roots”.

As a consequence, Christians increasingly see their reflection in a Jewish mirror, deepening their faith in Christ as well as showing respect to their elder siblings. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis declared: “God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism.”

In the 50 years since Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s groundbreaking declaration on the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions, there has been a massive shift in the Christian reading of the New Testament, which now acknowledges that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew, and that the first Christians were Jews. Yet, few recognise that its harsh criticisms of the Pharisees have as much to do with the rivalry between communities at the time in which the texts were written, as with anything that happened during the lifetime of Jesus. This was acknowledged by the Vatican’s 1985 Notes on Preaching and Catechesis: “It cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favourable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for the Christians of today.”

Yet Francis draws uncritically on Gospel accounts in which the Pharisees are depicted as the leaders of the Jewish people who oversaw a legalistic, exclusive religion lacking any sense of charity and compassion, without nuance or context. Since the ministry of Jesus can only be understood in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism, the concerns of Jesus and his followers are Jewish concerns; much of the polemic in the Gospels reflects the situation in which they were written, when Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus viewed each other with hostility and disagreement.

The criticism of the Pharisees is especially pronounced because it was rabbinic Judaism, based on Pharisaic Judaism, which had survived the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The dispute is over interpretation and over who should lead. The final text of the Gospels was edited long after the events described, and its authors were concerned both to denigrate those Jews who did not follow Jesus and also to vindicate the Romans, whose goodwill they were seeking.

Unlike his predecessor, Francis easily falls back into old-fashioned tropes, apparently unaware, for example, of the problems raised by such stereotypes as labelling Pharisees as hypocrites. “And Jesus tells us,” the Pope preached at the Santa Marta morning Mass in October 2015, “‘Beware of bad leaven, that of the Pharisees.’ And what is that? It’s hypocrisy. Be on your guard against the Pharisees’ leaven which is hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy, as Francis points out, is when we invoke God with our lips, but our hearts are distant from him.

Elsewhere Francis falls into the trope of condemning as superficial and pedantic the Pharisees who were weighed down by the burden of the law. Though “law” is often used to translate “Torah”, the word reflects the Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) translations, which have nomos and lex respectively. Judaism is being stereotyped as legalistic and fossilised by the time of Jesus. While the Torah does contain commandments, it has another, equally important characteristic, namely “instruction”. The papal bull he issued to launch the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, suggests that Pope Francis is unaware of this: “Jesus speaks several times of the importance of faith over and above the observance of the law. It is in this sense that we must understand his words when, reclining at table with Matthew and other tax collectors and sinners, he says to the Pharisees raising objections to him, ‘Go and learn the meaning of “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13).’

“Faced with a vision of justice as the mere observance of the law that judges people simply by dividing them into two groups – the just and sinners – Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation. One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law. In an attempt to remain faithful to the law, they merely placed burdens on the shoulders of others and undermined the Father’s mercy.”

While Francis’ warm and engaging pastoral style has largely enabled him to evade criticism, his occasional falling back into old tropes is a serious cause of concern; his homilies are read by Catholics far away from real encounters with Jews and Judaism. But in the five decades since Nostra Aetate there has been a transformation in the relations between Jews and Christians. On most major issues, Jews and Catholics find themselves on the same side of the theological fence: they are faced with the same challenges, and they seek to tackle them together.

Edward Kessler is founder director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge.