Rabbi Avraham Skorka head of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary of the Conservative Movement in Buenos Aires, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis have been close friends for the past two decades.
Skorka recalled the incident that sealed their friendship.
He told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that when, in 1999 Archbishop Begoglio of Buenos Aires was invited by Argentinean president Saul Menem to Israel Independence Day services, he shook hands with representatives of the various faiths in the city.
When he came to Skorka he asked him in a serious tone which football team he supported.
Skorka responded that he was a River Plate fan, and Bergoglio gravely replied that he was a fan of city rivals San Lorenzo, ribbing him about River Plate’s poor performance that season.
“With this joke he knocked down the walls between him and I, and he touched my heart,” said Skorka.
“What he was saying through his joke, I think, was that it is possible for us to connect on a human level. He was saying that he was open for friendship and dialogue.”
Skorka has been dubbed “the pope’s rabbi,” and was invited, along with Omar Aboud, a leader from the Buenos Aires Muslim community, to join the papal trip to the Middle East which begins on Saturday.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said earlier this month that their presence among the papal delegation was requested by the pope as a “strong and explicit signal” about interfaith dialogue and the “normality” of having friends of other religions.
That Bergoglio has emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue throughout his career is what Skorka says drew the two together. He related how he once invited the future pontiff to speak at his synagogue on Rosh Hashana, which Bergoglio did enthusiastically. He subsequently asked Skorka to give a Bible lesson to Catholic seminary students in the city.
They also reciprocated in penning forewords for each other’s books, and have since written a book together, On Heaven and Earth, on different theological issues facing Christianity, Judaism and modern society.
Skorka says the pope’s connection with the Jewish people is very strong and that he has devoted time to analyzing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
“Pope Francis has repeated on numerous occasions that the covenant of God with the Jewish people continues to be valid and has never ceased,” said Skorka.
“He believes that in every Catholic and Christian person there is a Jewish essence, and his theological mindset is that Jews and Christians must work together to improve the human reality and that God will bless the people of both religions if they do so.”
Pope Francis’s previous papal visit, to Brazil, was planned while his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI was still in office. His visit to the Middle East, Skorka said, is extremely significant in that it is his first personally requested international trip.
“This is the Holy Land. He has defined his visit here as a pilgrimage, to go to the places where Jesus walked and taught, and to meet with other Christian leaders from different denominations,” the rabbi explains.
The Vatican has indeed insisted that one of the principal reasons for the trip is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras, in Jerusalem.
As such, Pope Francis and Bartholomew I, the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople will meet and pray together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Skorka says however, that the pope is not indifferent to any of the global conflicts currently raging, and those in the Middle East are on his mind, including the conflict in Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians.
“He has already spoken out about the Syrian conflict on several occasions and can’t be indifferent here. He is coming here on a pilgrimage and will through his prayers call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Skorka’s final story about his friendship with the pope echoes his first. The events took place in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the tense diplomatic situation at the time.
It was not long after Bergoglio had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, and Skorka’s wife had commented that now his friend was such an important figure he would no longer be able to joke around with him about frivolous subjects such as football, as he used to.
Shortly thereafter, the rabbi and the priest both arranged to say a public prayer for peace in the square next to the Casa Rosa, or Pink House, the office of the president of Argentina, to call for peace.
“Well, we arrived at the square and exchanged greetings, and the first thing he said to was ‘Boca Juniors are playing awfully this season!’” a reference to another Buenos Aires football team and rival to River Plate and San Lorenzo supported by the rabbi and the priest respectively.
“This is how he gets to people’s hearts,” explained Skorka. “He is someone who likes to talk simply and on a human level, but what he says has deep meaning and significance."
“But if you want to really understand Bergoglio, one must look not just at his words, but at his deeds. He speaks more through his deeds than through his words. The way he embraces people, his respect for the other, and his warmth. You have to learn from his deeds and what they mean,” Skorka said.