Why Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu Leaders Have High Hopes for Pope Francis

Leaders from many faiths are expecting better relations with the Vatican under Pope Francis. Here YES! speaks to some of them about why that is.
Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo by Christus Vincit.

As the Catholic Church enters a new era of leadership under Pope Francis I, religious organizations around the world have congratulated and welcomed the new pope, hoping for a new era of interfaith cooperation. Several were willing to offer advice to both Pope Francis and the Catholic faithful that, if followed, could let Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and others better work together for a more peaceful world.

Pope Francis follows one of the most conservative and contentious popes in recent memory in respect to interfaith relations, and he may have his work cut out for him restoring the trust and mutual respect compromised by Pope Benedict XVI’s approach toward Judaism, Islam, and Native American religions.

In 2006, Benedict gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor, saying, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict later explained the quote was for the purposes of the lecture and not his personal opinion. In 2007, Benedict lifted restrictions on the Tridentine Mass—a Latin liturgy banned by the Second Vatican Council that calls in part for the conversion of Jews to Christianity and an end to what it calls Jewish spiritual “blindness.” Also in 2007, Benedict claimed in an address to the Brazilian people that the Native Americans “silently longed” for Christianity, causing another storm of indignation and disappointment.

Pope Francis follows one of the most conservative and contentious popes in recent memory.

“Pope Francis can certainly repair the damage,” said Mike Ghouse, a spokesperson for the World Muslim Congress in Dallas, Texas. By distancing the modern church from the destructive closed-mindedness of the past and admitting wrongs “in the humility of Jesus,” Francis can help restore the relationship between Christians and Muslims, according to Ghouse.

Already, Pope Francis has displayed such humility. Last Thursday, he visited a jail in Rome where he washed the feet of prisoners, including a female Muslim convict. This marks a notable break with tradition, as Muslims are not typically included in clerical foot-washing ceremonies.

As far as Ghouse is concerned, both Christianity and Islam “focus on serving mankind, [and] treating others as you want to be treated” regardless of theological differences, and any violent conflict between the two is “politics” as a “byproduct of fear and insecurity.”

Ghouse, also president of the Foundation for Pluralism, believes the pope has the power to bring faiths together in order to achieve practical goals as well.

“Pope Francis can call on Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, and others to jointly serve,” Ghouse said. “Eventually the feeling of doing good things will minimize the conflicts to the back burner, and people will learn to respect the otherness of others without having to agree.”

Pope Francis might be especially suited to changing education and practice, thanks to his career with the Jesuit clerical order

The Hindu American Foundation represents an inherently pluralistic faith and hopes that Pope Francis will reaffirm the church’s past commitments to respecting varieties of doctrine and celebrating similar values.

“Foundation leaders expressed hope that the Catholic Church, under Pope Francis I, as he will be called, will respect and privilege pluralism and interfaith relations, based on earlier efforts with Nostra Aetate,” the foundation said in a press release.

The Nostra Aetate is a proclamation, made by Pope Paul VI in 1965, that defines the Catholic Church’s relationship with non-Catholic religions. “[The church] considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship,” the Nostra Aetate says. It continues:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [non-Catholic religions]. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

Despite this official recognition of truth in other faiths, the Hindu American Foundation is concerned the Nostra Aetate doesn’t go far enough. According to Padma Kuppa, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, Catholicism as a whole needs to better understand religious pluralism and the effect evangelism has on pluralistic faiths if Catholics are to mend damaged relationships.

“Whenever a faith has a mission of conversion, that’s something that needs to be examined,” Kuppa said, referring to what she called “predatory proselytizing”—everything from social pressure to conform to forceful conversions throughout Western history—on the part of Catholics. Kuppa encouraged the church and its leaders to be conscious of the impact these practices had and have on non-Catholics throughout the world.

People will learn to respect the otherness of others without having to agree.

The American Jewish Committee, an organization devoted to global Jewish advocacy, is confident in Pope Francis’ ability to strengthen interfaith dialogue and collaboration, especially with the Jewish faith and community. “There has never been a pope who has had so much personal experience, engagement, and involvement with a contemporary Jewish community as Pope Francis,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the committee and one of few non-Catholics to be awarded the title of Papal Knight. Considering the new pope’s immediate gestures of goodwill to Jewish and other faith communities, including letters and invitations to inaugural ceremonies, Rosen finds it easy to be confident in strengthening Catholic-Jewish relations.

When it comes to any “unfinished business” between the faiths, Rosen said, “The major challenge is an educational challenge.” Despite a massive shift in church culture over the past several decades, from discriminating against Jews to embracing Judaism as the theological root of Christianity, “there are many places in the world where…Jews do not appear on the Catholic ‘radar screen’ and places where even bishops don’t know the content of the Nostra Aetate,” Rosen said. Pope Francis’ decades working with Jewish communities could provide a greater shift toward universal Catholic understanding of Judaism.

Pope Francis might be especially suited to changing education and practice within the wide variety of Catholic faithful, thanks to his career with the Jesuit clerical order, a catholic order known for their 16th to 18th century evangelism in Asia and the Americas. “The Jesuits had some issues with the Vatican over questions of local adaptation of Catholic rites,” said Dr. Jose Bento da Silva, a professor at Warwick University and author of the upcoming book The Government of the Society of Jesus.

“Pope Francis I is not only a former member of an organization that knows several practices need to be adapted; he himself is quite a multinational figure.” Francis was born to Italian parents in Argentina, where he was raised and served as Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio before being elected pope.

Regardless of past tensions between the Catholic Church and other faiths, all agree that “what’s done is done,” Kuppa said. “What we need to do is focus on the future.”


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