NO HOLDS BARRED: The pope asks me to pray for him on Israel

My meeting with the pontiff at the Vatican was a warm and important exchange.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach meets Pope Francis at the Vatican (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach meets Pope Francis at the Vatican
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Thursday, I met Pope Francis at the Vatican.
It was my second meeting with a pope, the first time being a meeting with Pope Benedict approximately six years ago.
I want to thank my close friend Gary Krupp of the Pave the Way Foundation for helping to arrange these visits. Gary and I strongly disagree on his efforts to canonize Pius XII who served as pontiff during the Holocaust. But he is a good man and devoted to Israel and the Jewish people.
One of the nice things about meeting the pope is that you get to see parts of the Vatican that are normally closed to the public. When I had an audience with Pope Benedict we were able to see some of the Vatican archives and more secret areas.
On this occasion I was excited to meet Pope Francis. He obviously has a reputation as a man with great personal righteousness, dedication to the poor, and trying to reform the Church to move it away from some of the social issues that have dominated over the past few decades, such as abortion, gay marriage, and conception, and to focus more on the plight of the disenfranchised.
Obviously those are all things I can agree with.
But the issue where I am not in alignment with the pope is on the Vatican’s seeming neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There can be no neutrality on an issue of such moral import. Jews are being stabbed every day due to incitement to violence on the part of the Palestinian Authority and from radical Islamic clerics. Israel is a righteous democracy that protects the rights of all its Jewish and Arab citizens.
It is this that I wished to discuss with the pope.
We arrived at 9 a.m., an hour before the audience was to begin. It was supposed to all take place indoors, but the weather has been so beautiful in Rome that they decided to hold it outside. At a 9:45 the Pope-mobile arrived to the sound of an organ playing, and Pope Francis, who was wearing a white overcoat, stood and waved to a crowd of many thousands.
He then finally arrived to his outdoor papal throne, though I wouldn’t call it a throne because this pope has gone out of his way to remove many of the lavish trappings of the papacy. It was a nice and comfortable chair.
I was sitting in the front row to the pope’s left. A number of bishops came forward and did a reading for the day which was from Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.”
It was said in many languages, particularly striking in Arabic. Later all of these bishops came and gave greeting to the pope in various languages from the assembled crowd, and again there was an Arab bishop who spoke in Arabic, which I found fascinating and highly encouraging to Christian Arabs in the Middle East. It was not featured in the program when I met Pope Benedict.
When it was finally my turn to meet the pope, I presented him a copy of my book Kosher Jesus. The pope was staring right at me, listening intently. He warmly held my hand.
I said to him, “Your holiness, I wrote this book Kosher Jesus for three reasons. The first was to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus. The second, to educate about the Jewish origins of the Christian faith and how the only religion ever practiced by Jesus was Judaism. And the third was to create a theological bridge of understanding between Jews and Christians in an era where Christians have emerged as some of Israel’s greatest supporters and defenders.”
I went on, “You have been incredibly courageous in acknowledging the authentic character of the Jewish faith. Last year for the first time in Roman Catholic history you issued a statement that Jews should no longer be proselytized by the Roman Catholic Church, reversing a policy of nearly 2,000 years. In so doing you acknowledged our spiritual autonomy and our right to be Jewish. You emphasized that Jews and people of other faiths can go to heaven and have an authentic spiritual life even though they are not Christian.” I continued that this was not easy for the pope to say, given that the Church is emphatic about the central nature of Jesus for salvation.
I then said, “What we really would ask you to do is to be just as emphatic about not just the Jewish soul but the Jewish body. In this time here in Europe where you are by far the dominant personality, and in the wider world where you are the foremost moral voice, there is a new war against our people.
The Jewish people is under threat around the world, with rising anti-Semitism, especially here in Europe where Jews are afraid to even wear their yarmulkes.
(Imagine if Catholic bishops were afraid to wear any identifying marker like their skullcaps because they might be attacked for it.) There are constant murderous attacks in Israel. As the foremost moral voice and spiritual personality in the world, your condemnation of anti-Semitism in unconditional terms and acknowledgment that there is no difference in hating Israel and hating the Jewish people is vital. Israel is hated simply because it’s the Jewish state.
“Stating that clearly and unequivocally would provide a moral bulwark against the enemies of the Jewish people, especially as forces like BDS attempt to destroy Israel economically and demonize the Jewish nation.”
I ended by saying, “The Jewish people face new genocidal threats. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah speak openly about the annihilation of the Jewish state and the Jewish people around the world. The person who can best combat this is you, your holiness, through people hearing your voice.”
IT was interesting because some of the other people who met Francis were hugging him and taking selfies with him. While I had a very warm embrace with him holding his hands, I was intent on keeping the conversation focused and the substantive and serious issue of a promised genocide in the Middle East. This he noticed, and he looked at me very intently, and I could see that he suddenly became somber and serious as I spoke.
He then said to me, “You must pray for me.”
It’s not easy when a pope asks you to pray for him, and I didn’t know exactly how to respond.
To have said that I will pray for the pope to find his voice on Israel would have sounded arrogant and insensitive.
To have not acknowledged his request for prayer would have sounded like I didn’t think he was sincere, and I could see he was sincere. If there is one thing about Francis, it is that he exhibits an incredible humility. So I told him I would pray for him to be a great defender of Israel, as he is already a great friend of the Jewish people, and I explained that the Jewish people is always praying for the welfare of the pope, wishing him God’s blessings in achieving this vital and noble aim.
It was a warm and important exchange.
PRIOR to my arrival I thought a lot about what I wanted to say to Pope Francis. You don’t get to share many messages with the pope. The pope has shown exemplary leadership in so many areas. His left-ofcenter economic policies have been controversial.
But whatever the case may be, when it comes to morality, this pope is extremely popular and influential.
Pius XII watched evil take over Europe during the Second World War but never spoke out against it, always maintaining a carefully balanced neutrality between the Allies and the Nazis. This pope understands the need for moral courage to speak out. We hope and trust that he will give a major address about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and condemn the genocidal threats against both Jews and Christians in the Middle East.
After he left it was remarkable to see how much time Pope Francis puts into tending to his flock, and to watch the people he was hugging and blessing, the people he was smiling at. You could see a shepherd dedicated to his flock. He is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and he exhibits a warm and caring heart.
I can see why there is a renaissance of the Church taking place under his watch. It seems to be coming through direct love. Many Catholics disagree with his political stances and policy positions, but they can’t help but love the man. And today through his warm embrace I could see why.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.