Pope Francis From a Jewish Perspective

Pope Francis is about to embark on his first official visit to the United States. In a short period of time, this pontiff has emerged as a remarkable leader whose compassion and inclusivity have inspired people around the world. His recent call for all Catholic institutions in Europe to take in refugees is but the latest example of his commitment to the most vulnerable in society.

He also is someone whom the Jewish community has admired and considered a friend and partner for many years. True to form, during his visit to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, the pope will be meeting with representatives of the Jewish community, along with other religious leader, and will convene an Interfaith Peace Gathering at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

This first visit offers an opportunity for an assessment of Pope Francis and his papacy thus far from a Jewish perspective.

This pope probably knows Jews more intimately than any pope in history.

In his native Argentina, the man once known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was no stranger to that country's large and active Jewish community. He struck up a warm friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of a rabbinic seminary in Buenos Aires. Together they co-authored "On Heaven and Earth," an important book on interfaith relations.

Since his election, Pope Francis consistently has spoken in clear terms about the theological significance of Jews and Judaism for Catholics. And he has been outspoken against anti-Semitism. As recently as April the pope unequivocally decried anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric in Europe. Referring to attacks on Jews in France, Belgium and Germany as "troubling," he said that Christians "must be firm in deploring all forms of anti-Semitism, and in showing their solidarity with the Jewish people."

Francis has said repeatedly that one cannot be a good Catholic and an anti-Semite. And at a time when Israel is under growing assault by those who question the sovereign Jewish State's very right to exist, the pontiff has made clear that the refusal to accept Israel as the rightful home of the Jewish people is "anti-Semitism."

It is truly remarkable to think about the revolutionary transformation that has taken place in the Catholic Church over the last 50 years in terms of the leadership's attitudes toward and teachings about the Jewish people. Launched during the Vatican Council in 1965, "Nostra Aetate" or "In Our Time," was a groundbreaking document that made clear for the first time in church history that Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

This overturned nearly two millennia of church teaching that portrayed Judaism as a corrupt and corrupting religion and Jews as enemies of Christ who were in league with the Devil. As a result, Jews were often the target of persecution expulsion and murder. These negative images of Jews provided fertile soil for the racial anti-Semitism that arose in the 19th century and ultimately for Hitler's Final Solution.

In this light, Nostra Aetate's unequivocal repudiation of anti-Semitism and the positive approach to Judaism and the Jewish people that has characterized the church in the decades since its publication are game-changers.

Pope Francis is continuing the work started by his predecessors, particularly Pope John Paul II, who made the teachings against anti-Semitism and respect for Judaism come alive within the church in both word and deed. As we have seen, Pope Francis is not just paying lip service to those reforms - he is embracing them wholeheartedly.

And yet, there is still work to be done.

We know from public opinion surveys that anti-Semitism is enjoying a disturbing resurgence around the world, and majority Catholic countries are no exception. In Latin America, where in some countries Catholics comprise more than 90 percent of the adult population, anti-Semitic attitudes are shockingly pervasive. In Colombia, the number rises to 41 percent; in Panama, anti-Jewish attitudes rank at 52 percent of the adult population. In the pope's native Argentina, nearly 24 percent of the adult population harbors anti-Semitic attitudes, which is more than double that of the U.S. Poland, the home of Pope John Paul II, has a rate of 45 percent.

Such anti-Semitism may in part be attributed to longstanding church teachings that have carried on in those countries despite the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council.

And we still are waiting for the church to open its World War II archives so that a more complete picture of the Vatican's actions during the Holocaust can emerge.

There have been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, moments of disagreement and points of tension between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church.

But we welcome Pope Francis to the U.S., and we commend him for his leadership and his commitment to Jewish-Catholic relations. We are confident that he will continue to remind Catholics of the teachings of Nostra Aetate.

In a world in which religion is often seen as a cause of conflict, the 50th anniversary of the new relationship between Jews and Catholics, and a pope who embodies them, demonstrates that change and reconciliation are achievable and that even a centuries-old enmity can be overcome.