Within hours of being elected pope by his fellow cardinals, Pope Francis sent a letter to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo di Segni, expressing his hope that as the new leader of the Church he could “contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics” have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s.
According to Fox News, the new pontiff has reached out to Rome’s Jewish community at the start of his pontificate, hoping to strengthen the increasingly close ties between Catholics and Jews.
From his very first words as pope, Francis embraced his role not only as successor to St. Peter and leader of the world’s Roman Catholics but also as the Bishop of Rome. In his speech to the thousands in St. Peter’s Square immediately following his election, the pope said:
You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one… but here we are… I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop. Thank you!
Outside of Rome, Jewish leaders around the world are welcoming the election of Francis, who was an ally as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when he attempted to expand interfaith outreach to both Jews and Muslims, making efforts to strengthen ties among the Orthodox churches.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said that Pope Francis would be a “welcome guest in the Holy Land,” while Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said that the new pope “always had an open ear for our concerns.”
“By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world,” Lauder said. “I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.”
According to Lauder, the World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in 100 countries, believes that Pope Francis will “speak out against all forms of anti-Semitism both within and without the Catholic Church, that he will take action against clerics who deny or belittle the Holocaust, and that he will strengthen the Vatican’s relations with Israel.”
In 1994, then-Jorge Bergoglio was praised for his assistance to Buenos Aires’ Jewish community following a bomb explosion in a Jewish Center that killed 85 people. Though Iran was blamed for the attack, it denied any involvement.
“We hope that his word and his example contribute to the achievement of harmony, brotherhood, and peace among all peoples,” the Italian Rabbinical Assembly said, offering to work to encourage discussion between Jews and Catholics “with mutual respect for their respective identities.”
Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI reached out to the Jewish community in Rome shortly after their respective elections as pope. Pope Benedict met with sharp criticism in 2009, however, when he lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist Catholic bishops in an effort to help bring about Catholic unity; one of the bishops, it was later revealed, was a Holocaust denier.
In his reflection on the incident, Benedict remembered his “repeated visits to Auschwitz… in which was carried out the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the human heart.”
Benedict prayed that the Holocaust be a warning for all people:
May the Shoah teach especially, as much the old generations as the new ones, that only the tiring path of listening and dialogue, of love and pardon, leads peoples, cultures and religions of the world to the desired encounter of fraternity and peace in the world. May violence never again humiliate the dignity of man!