When Pope Francis visits Philadelphia in September, interaction between Jews and Catholics may not happen at high-level meetings but, rather, in local living rooms and breakfast nooks.
Any formal papal meetings with the Jewish community — whether directly between the religions or as part of a larger interfaith gathering — is more likely to occur in New York or Washington, D.C., than in Philadelphia, according to Jewish and Catholic officials.
But the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Jewish leaders are planning their own form of connection — housing participants in the World Meeting of Families with Jewish residents during the weeklong Catholic gathering featuring prayer, celebration and learning that will culminate with a papal mass on Sept. 27 in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“There’s not a hotel room from here to Harrisburg,” said Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. For Jewish residents to host some of the 1.5 million to 2 million visitors expected in Philadelphia, he said, would “certainly be a sign of goodwill and good community relations.”
Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the church’s proclamation that reshaped relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths. The local Jewish community appears ready to honor that event and welcome the leader of the Vatican despite recent criticism of his official treaty recognizing the state of Palestine.
While in the United States, the pope will also visit Washington, where he is expected to speak to Congress, and New York, where a visit to the United Nations is planned. In short, his focus in other cities will be “external” — meaning that it’s more likely that a meeting with Jewish leaders will take place — whereas in Philadelphia, his focus will be “internal” on the Catholic community at the World Meeting of Families, said David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
During the Philadelphia visit, Saint Joseph’s University, working in concert with Jewish organizations, will hold an event commemorating Nostra Aetate and is planning to unveil a sculpture, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” depicting feminine symbols of a synagogue and a church reading sacred texts together, said Phillip Cunningham, director of the university’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.
He said the Jewish and Catholic groups are organizing the celebration because the “relationship has changed from one that was hostile — particularly Christians being dismissive and demeaning Jews and Judaism for centuries” — to one “of respect and an urgent need for dialogue and conversation. That has not happened in human history, so that ought to be celebrated.”
The Vatican has been invited to the event, but organizers “are under no illusions about the pope’s incredibly busy schedule,” Kessler said, adding that if the pope “were able to participate in this program, obviously we would be very excited about that.”
Other Jewish connections to the much-anticipated local happening include the fact that three local Jewish business leaders — Brian Roberts and David Cohen of Comcast, and former Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer — make up one half of the six-person executive leadership cabinet handling the city’s preparations for the pope’s visit.
There are also several Jewish presenters scheduled to speak during the Meeting of Families, including Daniel Mark, a professor at Villanova University who is a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a longtime friend of the pope — both are from Argentina — who traveled through Israel with the Catholic leader in 2014.
Mark, who is Orthodox, said he plans to speak about forgiveness and family. Nearly a quarter of the speakers scheduled for the meeting “are not Catholic, highlighting the universal human dimension of this topic, the importance of the family,” he wrote in an email.
On the housing front, local Jewish and Catholic leaders are working together to coordinate accommodations for the visitors and are still in the early stages of planning.
“I hope families in our community will consider hosting and opening their homes,” said Rabbi David Ackerman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, who serves on the local Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, a group dedicated to building interfaith relationships.
Jewish residents may be able to provide guests a bed but providing them with food or transportation could prove more difficult — at least at the beginning of the mass meeting.
The gathering begins the day before Yom Kippur, the High Holiday that includes a full day of fasting. The organizers scheduled the Jewish speakers on other days in part to try and accommodate the holiday, said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the event.
“We were very sensitive to that, and if we could have selected different dates, we would have,” she said of the whole gathering.
For now, local officials are playing down the pope’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Vatican recognized a Palestinian state in 2012 after the United Nations granted the entity non-member observer status. But a recent treaty reaffirming the church’s recognition of statehood drew a new round of outrage from pro-Israel supporters. The pope also recently presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with a peace medallion during a meeting at the Vatican and, according to some reports, which have been disputed, told the Palestinian leader that he was “an angel of peace.”
The Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia is not letting that issue get in the way. “Of course we’re not happy with this recognition, but it doesn’t change our relationship with the Vatican that is strong and based on cooperation and dialogue,” said Deputy Consul General Elad Strohmayer.
He said the consulate is planning to hold an exhibition at the National Liberty Museum on various papal visits to Israel to showcase this cooperation. Strohmayer said officials of the consulate, like everyone else, would like to meet with the pope, but also like everyone, is still unsure of the pope’s schedule.
“If there is going to be an international component where all the foreign consuls” participate, “we’ll be part of that as well.”