Pope Francis on Tour

Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in May, 2014.
Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in May, 2014.

By Joshua Resnek

Published September 24, 2015, issue of September 24, 2015.

For many American Jews, the visit of Pope Francis to the United States is met with a shrug and a decided lack of real interest. Jews, of course, don’t have a Vatican or a worldwide leader like the pope. Jewish religious life is a bit less regimented as a result.

However, the visit of Pope Francis to the United States has broad implications for American Jews, as he is perceived as a friend of the Jewish people, while at the same time professing to be the friend of all struggling people, including the Palestinians.

Through his official statements and in his personal gestures, Pope Francis has come to be viewed by many in the Jewish community as among the friendliest popes they have ever seen. During the two years of his papacy, Jews have been impressed by, among other things, his strong stance against anti-Semitism, his more flexible approach to some social and political issues on which most Jews take a liberal stand and even by his close Jewish friends — a point of view expressed by the writer Nathan Guttman in the Jewish Forward.

Enormous crowds are building everywhere in Pope Francis’ path as his triumphant tour of America is now underway.

His official schedule reveals no set meetings with Jewish leaders. Even so, American Jews will have the opportunity to meet with Francis during his visit at a multi-religious service he will hold at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York on September 25.

Dr. Peter Berger, a visiting professor at Gordon College, and a longtime professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, said the pope’s visit cannot be given any meaningful scrutiny until it is over.

“We can know of its effect when we find out what he does,” he said. “Millions are interested in what he has to say. He kisses babies and he likes to do it. He is an appealing figure. He wants to soften some Catholic positions. He has a very pastoral approach to people. In terms of his visit, let’s see what happens,” he added.

Previous popes had held separate meetings with Jewish leaders while visiting the United States, Guttman reported. But Francis’ tight schedule and the Jewish holidays made such an event impossible. A meeting, however, could take place in Rome in the near future, a Jewish official with ties to the Vatican said.

The Pope’s visit has excited interest in him locally.

More than 1,000 people in the Jewish Journal’s 23 city and town circulation base in Greater Boston and on the North Shore entered a lottery sponsored by Congressman Seth Moulton to receive tickets to watch the Pope’s address to Congress from the West Lawn of the Capitol.

Winners came from all over the district; Salem, Marblehead, North Andover, Reading, Wilmington, Wakefield, Danvers, Beverly, Lynn, Topsfield, Gloucester, Waltham, Essex and Tewksbury.

“Pope Francis is an inspiration to me and many Americans. I’m thrilled to offer the opportunity for a few Bay Staters to see the Pope in person from the West Lawn of the Capitol. This will be an historic moment.

“I’m looking forward to hearing what the Pope has to say. He has spoken out on many important issues — from economic inequality to climate change. There’s no better audience for his message than Congress,” Congressman Moulton told the Jewish Journal.

Pope Francis placed a prayer into the Western Wall on his 2014 visit to Jerusalem.
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Pope Francis placed a prayer into the Western Wall on his 2014 visit to Jerusalem.

People from all walks of life and religious backgrounds, including the Catholic faithful and not so faithful, are clamoring for a passing glimpse of Pope Francis, perhaps the most exciting prelate of our time and a pope, many believe, who is altering the face of the Catholic Church when organized religion is greatly challenged.

Many Catholics express high praise for Pope Francis. By every measure of careful observation he is breathing new life into nearly everything Catholic. Only die-hard Catholic Church conservatives contest his reign and modern ideas about ancient practices. For that large and vocal minority the changing church is inconsistent with sustaining cherished traditions and values.

For American Jews, and for Israelis, Pope Francis is part hero and part enigma.

He is a hero for standing against hate and for nurturing ecumenism. He has also shown a real and compelling interest in the environment, climate change, divorce, homosexuality and abortion with a more liberal point of view that has rankled conservatives around the world.

He is an enigma to some Jews and Israelis because he recognized the State of Palestine in May, 2015 when he exchanged gifts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during an audience at the Vatican.

In 2014, during a visit to Jerusalem, Pope Francis prayed at the Western Wall and met with Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu chief among them.

Francis and Netanyahu debated about which language Jesus spoke.

Netanyahu insisted that Jesus spoke Hebrew, which is likely.

Francis claimed Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is considered fact, as Aramaic was the lingua franca of the region during the time of Jesus.

Jesus also spoke and read Hebrew, and recited ancient Jewish prayers all in Hebrew.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” said Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckerman in a Reuters interview at the time. “He said both Netanyahu and the Pope had a point.

“Jesus would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew,” he added.

Palestinian officials often assert Jesus was a Palestinian because he spoke Aramaic.

Netanyahu insisted that Jesus was a Jew — a fact undisputed by Jews and Christians alike.

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