I recently returned from Rome where I had the privilege to have an audience with Pope Francis.
When an opportunity arises to meet with a world leader, one expects to receive positive feedback from friends and community. However, this was not the consistent response. When people heard that I had been offered a brief meeting with Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics and the fourth most powerful person in the world (according to Forbes magazine), instead of encouragement, I was often asked, “Why? Why him? Why not the Chief Rabbi of Israel?” or better yet, “He doesn’t represent Jewish values. What advice or encouragement could he possibly offer?” To answer these questions, I feel compelled to publicly articulate what my goals were for the meeting and the positive results that came from our time together.
Meeting the pope is not a simple thing to accomplish. There are numerous levels of approval required before being granted an audience. It is necessary to have a valid reason for requesting the audience. For me, I was meeting with him on behalf of the Israeli school system, Hand-in-Hand.
The Hand-in-Hand story began in 1997 when two Israeli educators, one a Jew and one an Arab, decided that enough was enough and decided to create a Noah’s Ark — a school that would have as its mandate an equal student population of Jews and Arabs. Its mission was to create a shared society where Palestinians and Jews could go to school together, learn to appreciate each others narrative and most importantly, allow the children to grow up with their Palestinian and Jewish neighbours as classmates and friends and not as enemies.
I believe in the mission of Hand-in-Hand and wanted to get the pope’s endorsement for the organization that I support. If you do not believe in the vision of a shared society in Israel, then the obvious question is, “Why bother meeting with the pope?” However, if you want to make a difference in Israel and consider the status quo unacceptable, then the meeting was historic.
As a Canadian, I believe in the values of peace and respect. As a humanitarian, I care about people of all ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. As a rabbi, I believe in religious responsibility and ethics to make this world a better place for all of mankind. This is why Hand-in-Hand calls out to me and why I have made it my life’s work to support and advance its cause.
During the pope’s visit to Israel in 2014, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray at the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem. It was, as his aides conceded later, “a silent statement against a symbol of division and conflict.” Many Israelis saw it as a propaganda stunt, an impression reinforced by the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately promised to create a postage stamp commemorating the moment. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the pontiff to make an unscheduled visit to a memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jewish leaders, who were offended by the pope’s prayer, should not have been. I was not offended then nor am I bothered by the pope’s prayer stop now. If anything, I agree with him. Every time I pass the security wall when driving in Israel, I also feel pain and so should every Israeli. Even though I view the wall as a necessary reality (as it has proven time and time again to prevent terrorism), it is still a symbol of pain and failure. It represents an inability to live in peace with our neighbours, it represents two sides that have not been able to build a lasting trust for one another and finally it represents the extreme sense of incarceration that many residents living on the Palestinian side feel by the mere fact that there is a wall locking them into a specific geographic area, something the Jewish nation has personally experienced much too often. I did not stop at the wall as the pope did and offer a silent prayer last time I was in Israel. However, I believe we all should. A necessary reality or not, it is a painful sight.
The main reason I met with the pope is that I want to make a difference in this world and need the support of leaders of all faiths to do it. While there are currently six schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab children go to school together, there are ten additional communities begging for such schools to be built. There are more than 1,000 children on the waiting list to attend these schools as well. This represents a grass-roots effort to do what should come naturally — to get along with our neighbours. If children can go to school together, play together and become friends from earliest childhood, maybe there is a chance for peace. When they grow up, they can continue to build these bridges and create a society that can work out differences, not through violence, but through negotiations based on trust, respect and appreciation for the fact that there can be two narratives to the same story.
The best word I can use to describe the audience with the pope is amazing. He is a humble and gracious man who is willing to take strong positions about his beliefs. The respect he showed me was incredible. Sitting me amongst the cardinals and the bishops during the General Assembly prior to our meeting was a sign of the esteem he shows to clergy of different faiths. His record during his three years as pope certainly represents a much more caring, sensitive and bridge-building church. The most recent example of Pope Francis’ new approach for the church occurred on December 10, 2015, addressing proselytizing the Jews. Allow me to quote the New York Times article discussing the Vatican’s statement, “Despite a long history of mutual suspicion and conflict, Christianity and Judaism are deeply intertwined, and Christians should treat the subject of the Holocaust with sensitivity and repel any anti-Semitic tendencies.”
The Vatican published a document titled, “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. Addressing an issue that has been a sore point between the two faiths for centuries, the commission wrote that the church was “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” It specified that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
Following the Wednesday morning General Audience attended by over 20,000, I was given the opportunity to meet with the pope and discuss the issue of Jews and Arabs living together in a shared society based upon mutual respect and shared goals. We also discussed the work of the Hand-in-Hand schools and the role the children who attend these schools will play in building bridges between the two groups in the coming years. After hearing about Hand-in-Hand, the pope offered strong words of encouragement, ending with the words, “This (Hand-in-Hand) is the only way to move forward.” I could not have said it better.
I hope to have future opportunities to meet with Pope Francis to discuss issues that are vital to both the Christian and the Jewish worlds. For now, I walked away inspired. There is much to be done to accomplish our goals in Israel and throughout the world. Knowing that we have a partner that represents such a large and powerful community can only be taken as a positive sign that there is a light at the end of our long tunnel.
Rabbi Boruch Perton is the Senior Rabbi of Beth Zion Congregation in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.