White smoke

This morning is one of my favorite passover rituals- the burning of chametz. It is one of my favourites because we use it as a sort of mid year check in to think about those things we wish to change in our lives, and those things we personally need to to work on to burn away.
Nearly two weeks ago the Catholic Church was dealing with its own special fires. For many the appointment of Pope Francis is also an opportunity for refreshment and renewal. I asked a dear friend and partner in Jewish Christian dialogue, John Robinson, currently finishing a phd at Trinity, Dublin, to reflect on the new Pope's appointment and what it means for Jewish Christian/ Catholic relations. These were his thoughts, for which I am very grateful:

Like other Catholics the world over, I was glued to the TV a week and a half ago as news came through that white smoke had billowed from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel meaning a new pope had been elected. I watched with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and uncertainty – who had they elected and what was this going to mean? One of the things that is not always apparent from outside the Church is that Catholics not infrequently have a somewhat fractious relationship with the Pope, so I wanted to know what way my blood pressure was likely to be headed over the next few years – up or down? The last few weeks have been dramatic ones for Catholics, beginning with the resignation of Benedict XVI (no longer true that a Pope is for life, not just for Christmas), the report detailing further disfunction in the curia, the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien etc, and I think all Catholics watching will have had their own personal checklist of things they want the new Pope to do or not do, and near the top of my own list was, and is, Jewish-Christian dialogue.
When Pope Francis emerged, like many people my first question was ‘who is he?’ Jorge Bergoglio had not been on the radar of commentators or Vatican watchers and I think it’s fair to say that no one anticipated he would be elected (the Italian Bishops conference actually accidentally sent an email congratulating Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, on his election as Pope after the smoke was sighted).
As I googled him, one thing that quickly became apparent was that the new Pope’s record on Jewish-Christian relations has been decidedly good. Jewish commentators particularly mentioned his reaction to the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in which 85 people were murdered, his loaning out of the main cathedral in Buenos Aires for a ceremony commemorating the 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and his lighting of the first Channukah candle in December at a Buenos Aires synagogue. The signs, then, look good.
The question I was asked to ponder for this blog entry is what I would like the new Pope to do in terms of Jewish -Christian relations. Certainly the relationship between Jews and Christians has improved beyond all recognition since the issuing of the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, a definition which can’t be undone or receded given its conciliar authority (this struck me particularly as I chatted with Rabbi Debbie while we waited for the new Pope to emerge onto the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square). What then remains to be done? The answer is plenty. This week’s Tablet (an international Church periodical, not a mood enhancer for Catholics) featured an interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch, the cardinal charged with matters relating to Jewish-Christian dialogue, who, referring to stretched resources, quipped to the interviewer that effectively he and his secretary are the official dialogue from the Catholic side. This is not satisfactory, and one of the first things Pope Francis could do is to bring some of the many Catholic and Jewish scholars engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue on board in something akin to the International Theological Commission which already exists for in-house matters.
The fruits that have already been gained in dialogue also need to be more widely disseminated on the ground, and there are a number of ways this could be done: making obligatory an explanatory note in sermons on the context of the texts read in Holy Week, courses in Rabbinics and Jewish History in seminaries as part of the curriculum, and ensuring that there is a dialogue and/or educational programme on Jewish-Christian dialogue in every diocese in the Catholic world (depending whether Jews are present in the area or not). The Church can also set itself the task of publicly combatting the anti-Semitism which is rearing its head in many places in our own day. In short much has been gained, but much remains to be done.
Speaking of the then Cardinal Bergoglio’s Channukah visit [pictured] in December, Rabbi Alejandro Avruj said Francis spoke ‘of light as renovation, of the re-inauguration of the temple of Jerusalem 2, 200 years ago, and the need to carry light into the world.’ Carrying light into the world – this seems to me to be one of the most fundamental things we, as Jews and Christians, can do together. We both believe in God’s revelation in the Hebrew bible, both believe that God is active in history and will one day redeem it, and our traditions both have considerable resources which can speak to the current situation of humanity, riven as it is by conflict and strife. The tragedy of the past interactions of Christians with Jews can only strengthen the impact of such a united voice in the present. As the prophet Jermiah put it nearly two and half millennia ago: ‘So thus says the Eternal: If you produce something precious out of what is worthless, then you will speak for me.’ (Jeremiah 15:19).


  1. Thank you both and all for this article. It seems rather frightening that I may be the first to step over it with my thoughts, and I do hope that my footprints don’t sully its freshness. Our many histories, both Jewish and Christian, have taught us many things, and among these is the certainty that we are offered no guarantees. Yet our stories are filled with beginnings, and few beginnings offer as much hope as good beginnings. Francis – named for the universal saint of Christian tradition – has presented us all with just that: a good beginning. He has ‘shaken off the dust’ of the ruby slippers, by taking a simple white chair among his sisters and brothers he has truly ‘cast the mighty from their thrones’ and he has shown his humility by riding on the donkey that was the bus from the Sistine Chapel. This is a man who we are willing to trust. These are, however, as a Jesuit friend reminded me today, only superficial details. The fullness of Francis’ story is yet to be told.

    Contributors to and readers of this weblog will be familiar with rabbinic and ecclesiastical quibbles over words. So I feel little need to apologise for advancing my own quibble. We understand that both John and Rabbi Debbie, in their use of ‘Catholic,’ refer to the Roman Catholic Church, and we can accept that a Roman Catholic has no need to clarify this point, but many of we Protestant Christians cherish and profess our own Catholicism. There is only one Church – albeit a fractured family. Indeed the fullness of the Church is present in the Roman Catholic Church, but this Catholic Church is not in itself the fullness of the Church. That our much loved (a complicated relationship) Sister Church has elected a new Bishop of Rome is a big deal. The vast importance of Rome to the totality of Christianity alone provides that it holds the keys to the kingdom of our unity. The catholicity of the Church is reduced to mere parochialism without her.

    As a man of words and actions Francis has shown himself consistently to be committed, not simply to the respect of Jews, people of other faiths and none, and other Christians, but to the action of love itself. If we are to speak meaningfully of the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue in the light of Rome’s new Bishop, then it must begin with the impact of his election on Christianity as a whole. As far as beginnings go, Francis has made a good start. In him there is a reasonable hope that a channel now exists for peace, for where for so long there has been a growing sense of despair he has brought hope. As we are learning who he is and coming to an understanding of him we are encountering a man who is seeking to understand us. We can be sure that this is not the end of the story, it is not even the beginning of the end – it is but the end of the beginning. Where in the past John Paul II acknowledged the injury inflicted upon the Jewish people by Christians, Francis, at least if we are to place stock in his choice of name, promises to be a man devoted to seeking pardon.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts! Not at all sullying but hopeful and helpful!


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