Rabbi Abraham Skorka will be in Philadelphia at the same time as his good friend, Pope Francis.
A rabbi and a priest walk into a chapel …
Fortunately, that’s the extent of the punch line, but a rabbi and a priest — specifically Argentinians Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Pope Francis — will be heading toward the Saint Joseph’s University area for the dedication ceremony celebrating Nostra Aetate.
Nostra Aetate, Latin for “in our time,” is the official Catholic document signed by bishops of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that called for a new, peaceful relationship between Catholics and Jews. Skorka, a longtime friend of the pope, will speak at the ceremony.
Skorka is the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamerica in Buenos Aires and the keynote speaker at the ceremony. He will speak at Saint Joseph’s for the dedication ceremony of the bronze statue, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” at the Chapel of St. Joseph-Michael J. Smith, S.J. Memorial on Friday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.
He will discuss the significance of the document, what he hopes for the future of Jewish-Catholic relations and his close friendship with Francis as a model for Jewish-Catholic relationships.
Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s and president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, said Nostra Aetate reversed centuries of negative attitudes and teachings about Jews.
Saint Joseph’s University was the first institution in the United States to develop a program in response to Nostra Aetate, shortly after it was declared.
In the Middle Ages, especially in Christian Europe, it was common to depict the church figure in sculptures as strong and powerful and the synagogue as defeated. But the Saint Joseph’s statue,
created by local artist Joshua Koffman, portrays both positively.
Cunningham said he hopes the ceremony continues to shape interfaith relationships, providing guidance to other religious groups in the world today.
“We’ve learned how to talk to one another,” he said. “Now we really can do that in a way that’s literally unprecedented in history.”
The Jewish community is joining in the celebration as well. The ceremony is co-sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the World Meeting of Families, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
With several hundred people expected to attend, Cunningham said it’s an example of the entire region celebrating the milestone.
Cunningham met Skorka at an annual ICCJ conference, held in Buenos Aires last year. When he heard of Skorka’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia, he immediately invited him to the celebration.
With Philadelphia having the third largest Jewish community in the U.S., Cunningham said the fact that both religious leaders will be here illustrates the new world that we live in.
“The fact that [Skorka’s] visit is occurring the same weekend as Francis’ reinforces the dramatic turnaround that Nostra Aetate represents,” he said.
Skorka will spend about a week in Philadelphia meeting with officials. He hopes to meet briefly with the pope Sunday morning in passing while Francis will be at a papal meeting with bishops at the nearby St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, taking a few moments to bless the new statue and catch up.
In a telephone interview, Skorka recalled that the duo’s friendship started in the mid-1990s, when Francis was then Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The two bonded over what most religious leaders bond over: sports.
They joked about soccer, the pope’s favorite team, San Lorenzo de Almagro, beating Skorka’s team, Club Atlético River Plate.
Skorka was often invited by the president of Argentina at the time to be a representative of the Jews at ceremonies, among other rabbis. Over time, he and Pope Francis worked together more often and began learning from one another.
“He was the one who first opened the door, which allows us to speak freely,” he said.
Pope Francis invited Skorka to conferences and seminars for Catholics. Skorka invited Pope Francis to his synagogue, where the future pope spoke to the congregation.
Skorka said the highlight of their friendship was the publication of their book, Of Heaven and Earth, which was published in English in 2013.
When the pope asked him to write part of the book, Skorka said he was touched.
“It’s a tremendous sign, the first time in history that this occurred” that a pope requested the participation of a Jewish leader for such a venture, he said. “Each of us [has] a total confidence in the other. We know that the other is a real friend that will do the utmost for the other in order to help him.”
Skorka said he and Francis discuss the similarities and differences between their religions and build on their work together, continuing to analyze their ethics.
“We are not moving from our convictions. We don’t try to transform the other. What we do is a real dialogue,” he said.
“It’s a real friendship; it’s a deep friendship because during all the years of our friendship, we maintained a direct dialogue presenting all the themes with a great respect — each to the other — but speaking openly,” Skorka said.
When Francis traveled to Israel for the first time in 2014, Skorka was by his side. They prayed at the Kotel and left messages in its cracks, visited Yad Vashem, and placed a wreath at Mount Herzl.
Zionism is also a huge part of the Jewish community in Argentina, Skorka added. The country’s largest Jewish community, with a population of about 200,000, can be found in his hometown of Buenos Aires.
Skorka was born in Argentina, but he is of Ashkenazi decent. His parents immigrated to Argentina from Poland in the 1920s. He had a very religious upbringing, attending Jewish schools since childhood and speaking Yiddish as his first language.
He also speaks Hebrew, English and Spanish, and dabbles in some German.
Aside from his Jewish education, Skorka is a man of science.
Initially, he wanted a career in scientific research, but was drawn to the ideas of science in a way that complemented religion.
“My passion was to understand a little bit more about God’s creation,” he said.
Scientific philosophy is fairly set in stone; you cannot speak about the concept of time without knowing the theory of relativity. Skorka theorized that he studied Judaism in order to acquire the knowledge of the Torah; you cannot have one without the other.
After his first degree in chemistry and third level of Jewish curriculum, one of his professors advised him to finish his rabbinical studies and decide on his career path later.
He continued to study both fields, receiving a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires while he was already ordained as a rabbi.
Skorka also has a doctorate honoris causa from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
But eventually, Judaism called on him more and more. Now, the 65-year-old is completely dedicated to his rabbinical work and the Jewish community.
When his “dear brother” became the 266th pope, Skorka was ecstatic. And after two and a half years of papacy, he said Francis is a central figure for all humanity.
“I felt God’s presence in this action,” he said. “Most important, God blessed me with the possibilities to transmit the message of Judaism to my community, to my students in the rabbinical seminary and now this work of dialogue with Pope Francis.”
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