In, March 2013, when a little-known Bishop from South America was chosen to become the most important man in Rome, and across the Catholic world, people in Rome wanted to know who he was. Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist and the founding editor of La Repubblica wrote a letter to the new Pope asking him what his position would be on various issues. The new Pope responded with a letter, which got far less publicity than it deserved.
In his letter, Mr. Scalfari asked the new Pope what kind of position he, as Pope, would take towards the Jewish people. Scalfari’s question was particularly difficult question considering the centuries of hostility Rome had shown the Jewish people as an accursed people who deserved to be treated as second-class citizens.
Even the famous Vatican II or Nostra Aetate, which was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1965 only stated that:” the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God “ Not too warm and fuzzy.
Pope Francis responded with these words, which drew too little attention:
”You also ask me, in conclusion of your first article, what we should say to our Jewish brothers about the promise made to them by God: has it all come to nothing?
Believe me; this is a question that challenges us radically as Christians, because, with the help of God, especially since Vatican Council II, we have rediscovered that the Jewish people are still for us the holy root from which Jesus germinated.
In the friendship I cultivated in the course of all these years with Jewish brothers in Argentina, often in prayer, I also questioned God, especially when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoa. What I can say to you, with the Apostle Paul, is that God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed and that, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church, but also as humanity. They, then, precisely by persevering in the faith of the God of the Covenant, called all, also us Christians, to the fact that we are always waiting, as pilgrims, for the Lord’s return and, therefore, that we must always be open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already attained.”
To see the person occupying the highest position in the Catholic church going beyond tolerance, recognizing the inspiration he draws from the Jewish people, is a historical milestone that cannot go unnoted. The idea that the faithfulness of the Jewish people to their faith can inspire others is a beautiful fulfillment of the Torah’s promise:” And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people. “)Deuteronomy 4)
The fact that he can see that the faithfulness of the Jewish people to their own religion has brought about a gift to humanity, for which humanity ought to be thankful for, is a truth long overlooked. Sometimes, it has been overlooked by the very same people who carry that gift—the Jews. While introspection and self-criticism are deeply embedded in the DNA of the Jewish people, it is also essential that we take time to be proud of who we are. It is crucial that we take the time to be proud of how long we have kept to our sacred texts, traditions, Shabbat, kindness, and believe that no matter how dark things are, there is a brighter tomorrow that will arrive.
Taking pride in who we are is particularly important when looking at the waves of hate and antisemitism rising now even in the West. With German officials telling Jews now to stop wearing kippot, it is imperative we stand up and show our pride. We must be proud and fearless. We owe it to the next generation to know how proud they should be. We owe it to young Jewish children who are facing online bullying and hate to know what a magnificent line they come from, a line that gives hope and inspiration to humanity as a whole. If Pope Francis can say that:” through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church, but also as humanity”, surely we can say it too.
The Jewish people’s commitment to our faith and the Torah has been a living testimony for the three great religions of the world. Our commitment to kindness, hope, and compassion—even in the face of the greatest atrocities—has inspired so many others. We must make sure we, and the next generation of Jews, are proud of what we have done. It’s not enough we acknowledge that we must be proud of it. And if you feel some Jewish guilt being too proud of who you are, remember, Pope Francis is proud of you, so why shouldn’t you?