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VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis begins to lead the worldwide Catholic Church, accolades are pouring in from people of other traditions who knew him as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina.
“His humility drew my attention,” Sheik Mohsen Ali, an Islamic leader in Argentina, told the Buenos Aires Herald. He “always showed himself a friend of the Islamic community.”
One of the hesitations raised in the past about electing a Latin American pope was that, in an overwhelmingly Catholic culture, many had no track record of constructive interaction with other Christian traditions or other religions. Some derided the growing evangelical Protestant communities in their nations as “sects” and attacked them for evangelizing lapsed Catholics. Jewish leaders worried Latin Americans knew little and cared less about the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation of Judaism as the faith that shaped their own.
Pope Francis, however, has stilled fears and drawn praise. He prayed with evangelicals in Buenos Aires and built good relationships with mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christians there. Argentine Jewish and Islamic leaders both expressed elation at his election.
One of his first acts was to write personally to Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni of Rome, personally inviting him to the inaugural Mass. “I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics since Vatican Council II, in a spirit of renewed collaboration and in service of a world that may always be more in harmony with the Creator’s will,” he wrote.
Pope Francis’s first announced meeting after that Mass on Tuesday will be a Wednesday audience with representatives of other Christian traditions. It wasn’t yet certain who would attend, said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, but it was considered important enough to replace the usual Wednesday audience for the public in St. Peter’s Square.
“We will have just had the big Mass on Tuesday,” he said. “So on Wednesday the Pope will meet with delegations of the other Christian churches and communities that are present.”
The Orthodox are sending an impressive delegation, led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodoxy. Among those accompanying him will be Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Taracios of Buenos Aires and Metropolitan John of Pergamon, a renowned Greek theologian who chairs the Orthodox side of the international Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue.
Cardinal Bergoglio appeared to have an excellent relationship with Orthodox Christians in Buenos Aires, said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. Although Cardinal DiNardo doesn’t know Pope Francis well, he once spent an afternoon with the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, Catholicos Karekin II, who was visiting Armenian parishes in Houston.
During the conversation, Catholicos Karekin told Cardinal DiNardo that he had a large community in Buenos Aires and spoke highly of Cardinal Bergoglio. The Armenian Orthodox are an ancient church that, because of largely resolved differences over the nature of the Trinity, isn’t part of the global Eastern Orthodox Church but enjoys a good relationship with it.
“He said that Cardinal Bergoglio met with him and that the two of them had a great discussion,” Cardinal DiNardo said.
Relationships between the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Protestants in Latin America have generally ranged from hostile to tepid. But Cardinal Bergoglio was an exception.
“He was criticized by conservative Catholics for participating in a prayer service with evangelicals and letting them pray over him,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the hierarchy. “To bishops who blame the evangelicals for Catholic losses, he basically said we have to take responsibility and talked of not sitting in our churches but going into the streets.”
That attitude excites George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II and most recently author of Evangelical Catholicism. Last May he spent an hour interviewing Cardinal Bergoglio and came away convinced that he knew how to preach the Catholic faith in an appealing way and wouldn’t be bogged down by bureaucratic baggage that has characterized the modern church.
“I was struck in our conversation that he didn’t blame evangelicals for Catholic losses in Latin America, but rather Catholicism’s own evangelical deficiencies,” Mr. Weigel said. “He clearly understands that a kept church — a church kept [prominent] either by legal establishment, cultural habit, or both — cannot survive in the 21st century.”
Mainline Protestants have found him approachable and supportive, said Bishop Donald McCoid, the former Pittsburgh bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is now the denomination’s top official for ecumenical and inter-religious relations. He expects to meet with Pope Francis later this year.
“We have prayed for his election, because it is important for all Christians,” Bishop McCoid said. “Pope Francis is a conservative theologian, yet his outreach to people through his ministry in the past is also an indication of his outreach to other Christians.”
Religious leaders outside Christianity were just as elated.
Rabbi Alvin Berkun, who for more than 20 years has engaged in Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the Vatican level, immediately recognized him as the cardinal who had hosted that dialogue group during a meeting in Buenos Aires several years ago. The group had chosen to meet in Latin America because they wanted to bring awareness of the constructive relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community, which isn’t widely known in Latin America, he said.
In Cardinal Bergoglio, he said, they found someone well aware of it. The only Holocaust memorial in Buenos Aires was in his cathedral. After 85 people died when Muslim extremists bombed the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, then-auxiliary Bishop Bergoglio spoke out strongly, he said. As archbishop he commemorated its anniversary and became the first prominent leader to sign a petition asking for justice when the investigation was shown to have been deliberately botched. Last fall he visited a conservative synagogue in Buenos Aires on Rosh Hashanah.
In Rome, Murray Dickman, who is Jewish, wept for joy as he watched on television while the new Pope spoke from the balcony.
“As a Jew, I am encouraged by what I have read about his denouncement of the bombings of the Jewish center in Argentina,” he said. Even as he condemned violence committed in the name of Islam, Cardinal Bergoglio built strong relationships with Muslims in Buenos Aires.
Sumer Noufouri, secretary-general of the Islamic Center of the Republic of Argentina, told the Buenos Aires Herald that the new Pope is a “respectful, pro-dialogue person who knows Islam.”
Argentina, the Muslim leader said, “is a model of dialogue and coexistence that, God-willing, could be exported to the world.”
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is the religion writer for the Post-Gazette.
Contact her at: Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org.