The strong connection between the Argentinian Jewish community and the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires has been responsible for a WJC delegation visiting Pope Francis before Rosh Hashana in each of the last 3 years to present a honey cake and wish him a sweet New Year. The Pope was regarded as a sincere friend of the Jewish community and he maintained some strong personal friendships with Rabbis and lay figures which continue to this day.
The Pope received us at the Vatican guesthouse which is his home. It is a simple almost ascetic building where he lives in a small apartment on the 2nd floor. It is nothing like the state apartments where previous Popes lived and it meant that at our visit he was accompanied by no one other than a priest from S Africa who acted as translator from Italian with no Vatican civil servants present. Seeing us at home was an honour in itself.
The Pope entered without fanfare. We were seated in two semi-circular rows and he immediately made for the second row, squeezing between the people and the chairs in front to greet each member of the delegation and say a few words as he made his way along the row. This was a typically informal, warm gesture wholly without pomposity which characterises this Pope. His greetings were notably personal, smiling and carried great sincerity. Those to the Argentinians were especially warm and he seemed to know most of them. Some of the Argentinian men got a hug and the women a light kiss on the cheek (I wasn’t expecting that from a Pope !).
After greetings from WJC President Ronald Lauder who presented the cake the Pope returned the greeting. He referred to his Jewish friendships from the time of his schooldays and said that since Christianity had grown from Judaism it was impossible to be antisemitic and remain a member of the church as the two were mutually exclusive and inconsistent. He then threw the occasion open for questions. I had a question whether the Pope could use his office to speak to Muslim leaders and seek to defuse tensions which were at the heart of so much conflict in our world.
Pope Francis answered by referring to gentleness in which everyone should be approached, but then immediately he used firmer words about fundamentalists in all religions who it was hard or even impossible to talk to. He went on to say, and to repeat in a later answer on migrants, that we had to extend a welcoming hand, but that in return it was essential that minorities integrate into the country where they live. These were clear statements, by no means platitudes, which stood out for me in the audience.
The Pope also referred to Europe growing old, and to some growing attitudes of intolerance that he was contrasting with attitudes of young people. His usual method was to answer questions with some initial words of humour, and to pause before speaking slowly, quietly but with great conviction in a more serious vein.
We were allotted half a hour but had virtually an hour. Each participant got some individual words of farewell, a clasp of the hand and a souvenir of a Papal medal.
Looking back, I am left with a strong sense of a man of sincerity, decency, great humour and above all informality. He came across as a very genuine friend of the Jewish people, which the Argentinian members strongly endorsed.
It was a great privilege and an experience I shall always remember.
The delegation was not large, and included the Presidents of CRIF, the Italian and the Hungarian communities and of course several people from Argentina and Brazil. I believe the German community president was invited but was unable to attend.