Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the 266th and current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first pontiff from Latin America. He succeeded Pope Benedict XVI who resigned from the position in February 2013.
Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was studying to be a chemical technician when he decided at the age of 21 to become a priest. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and after attaining degrees in theological studies and psychology he served as provincial for Argentina from 1973 to 1979. In 1992, Bergoglio was named Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires.
Bergoglio is said to be on good terms with the Jewish community of Argentina. Local and American Jews thanked him for his response to the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 87 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. In 2005, he was the first public figure to sign a joint statement entitled “85 victims, 85 signatories” against terrorism and demanding belated justice for the bombings. Jose Adaszko of the Israel Mutual Association of Argentina and Omar Helal Massud of the Islamic Center also signed. Bergoglio also published a book together with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, president of the Buenos Aires Rabbinical Seminary, that examines a range of issues from Jewish and Catholic perspectives. Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a Buenos Aires legislator, was referred to by Bergoglio as “one of my teachers.” As Pope, Bergoglio has held meetings and worked with the Latin American Jewish Congress.
On March 13, 2013, Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pope - the first from the Americas and the first from outside Europe since Pope Gregory III was elected in the year 734. He is the first Pope to take the name Francis, saying that he chose the name to honor St. Francis of Assisi, one who helped the poor. Bergoglio was also a runner-up for the papacy in the 2005 enclave that ultimately chose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger instead.
Upon his consecration, Francis sent a message to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, inviting him to mass in the Vatican on March 19. “I sincerely hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said, “I think it is the first time a pope has been elected that the Jewish community knows previously, and has a long history [with],” and that he is “very, very optimistic” about the future of relations between Jews and Catholics. “If you had to choose a pope by Jewish interest, you would have had to choose Bergoglio,” Epelman said. Julio Schlosser, the president of a Buenos Aires synagogue and the other Argentine delegate in Greece, said that Francis is “my friend and a friend of the rabbis” who is “very close to the Jewish community.”
On March 28, 2013, Francis promised friendship, respect, and continued dialogue with other religious leaders. He described the connection between Catholics and Jews as “a spiritual bond” that is “very special.”
“It’s a good start,” Rabbi Di Segni said in a follow-up interview. “Hopefully, we’ll not have any accidents.” When asked about disagreements, the rabbi said, “What is important is the goodwill to solve them.”
The Pope has spoken out many times in opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic behavior. In October 2013, Francis reminded a crowd gathered in Rome of the importance to, “not regress, under any pretext, to any forms of intolerance and anti-Semitism, in Rome and in the rest of the world. I have said it before, and I would like to repeat once more: It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic... May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman!” Not recognizing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people is anti-Semitic, according to Pope Francis. Francis has a strong positive relationship with the Jewish people and has spent “all of these long years with [my] Jewish brothers,” in Argentina.
Pope Francis reaffirmed his steadfast support for a Jewish homeland in the state of Israel in May 2015, stating during an interview that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel - and their right to exist - is guilty of anti-Semitism.”
The Vatican released a document on December 10, 2015, commanding that Catholics should not try to convert Jews and that the two groups should work together to combat anti-Semitism. Included in the statement was a pledge by the Vatican to, “do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.” Harsh condemnations of anti-Semitism were offered, and the leadership of the church expressly stated that the church, “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
Pope Francis became the third pope ever to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp on July 29, 2016, where he walked beneath the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” arch and met with survivors. He visited the cell where Maximilian Kolbe was held and knelt and prayed silently. The Pope’s only words during the visit, he inscribed in the guest book; “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgive us for so much cruelty!”
In 2019, amid the global rise in anti-Semitism, the Pope spoke out again. “The Jewish people have suffered so much in history, they have been chased away, they too have been persecuted,” he said. “In the last century we saw so many brutalities against the Jewish people, and we were all convinced that this was over. But today the habit of persecuting the Jews, brothers and sisters, is here reborn. This is neither human nor Christian.” He added: “The Jews are our brothers and should not be persecuted, understand?”
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Pope said, “If we lose our memory, we destroy our future. May the anniversary of the unspeakable cruelty that humanity learned of seventy-five years ago serve as a summons to pause, to be still and to remember. We need to do this, lest we become indifferent….I never tire of firmly condemning every form of anti-Semitism.”
In July 2021, Pope Francis reversed the position of his predecessor on the use of the Latin Mass, a form of the liturgy favored by traditionalist Catholics that calls for the conversion of the Jews and that, until 2008, included a reference to Jewish “blindness.” Pope Benedict XVI had made it easier to use the Latin Mass but Francis announced its use would be restricted. Priests must accept “Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican II declaration that condemned anti-Semitism and said the Jews were not guilty of killing Jesus, and get permission from their local bishop.
A month later, a controversy erupted when the pope said during an audience that “The law (Torah) however does not give life. It does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfil it ... Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ.”
Rabbi Rasson Arousi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, said the comments appeared to suggest Jewish law was obsolete and sent a letter to the Vatican seeking clarification. “In his homily, the pope presents the Christian faith as not just superseding the Torah; but asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the present era is rendered obsolete,” Arousi Wrote.
“This is in effect part and parcel of the ‘teaching of contempt’ towards Jews and Judaism that we had thought had been fully repudiated by the Church,” he added.
The Vatican quickly tried to clear up what it viewed as a misunderstanding. In his response to Rabbi Arousi, Cardinal Kurt Koch, whose Vatican department includes a commission for religious relations with Jews, wrote that the pope’s comment was not a judgment on Jewish law. He also cited the pope’s remark in 2015, “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah.”
In addition, the pope subsequently said his comments on St. Paul’s writings were “simply a catechesis (teaching homily) ... and nothing else.”
For the first time, a pope hosted the head of Yad Vashem when Francis met with Dani Dayan in June 2022. Dayan said he didn’t discuss controversial issues such as Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. “You don’t sit with the pope on specific files. You sit with the pope on the big issues, on the principles, on the headlines,” Dayan said.
They did discuss how to “bolster collaborative activities” in areas of “Holocaust remembrance, education, and documentation, and to discuss efforts to fight anti-Semitism and racism worldwide.” Dayan added, “We are completely satisfied with the attitudes of the pope personally and the Catholic Church, the Vatican.”
In September 2023, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of beatifying (a step toward sainthood) a Polish family of nine who were betrayed and executed for sheltering Jews. Farmers Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six young children – Stanislawa, Barbara, Maria, Wladyslaw, Franciszek, and Antoni – hid eight Jews in their farmhouse in the village of Markowa. On March 24, 1944, German police shot the Jews hiding in the attic and then took the Ulma family outside, shooting Jozef and Wiktoria (who was seven months pregnant) and their children.
In 1995, Yad Vashem awarded Jozef and Wiktoria with the title “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Sources: Alejandro Lifschitz, “Argentina's Pope a modest man, focused on the poor,” Reuters, (March 13, 2013).
David Lev, “New Pope said to have good relations with Argentine Jews,” Israel National News, (March 13, 2013).
”New Pope, Francis, known as a humble man with a focus on social outreach,” CBS News, (March 13, 2013).
Fiske, Gavriel. “Our Christmas dinners with the Pope,” Times of Israel, (March 18, 2013).
David Horovitz and Gavriel Fiske, “Pope Francis visited Israel in 1973, just as Yom Kippur War broke out,” Times of Israel, (April 21, 2013).
Jim Yardley, “Pope meets other religious leaders, pledging respect,” New York Times, (March 20, 2013).
Foxman, Abraham. “Pope Francis and the Argentine rabbi,” Huffington Post, (April 18, 2013).
Pope Francis: Open Dialogue With Non-Believers, (September 11, 2013).
The Pope to the Jewish Community of Rome: Dialogue and Encounter Derail Prejudice, (October 11, 2013).
Avi Lewis, “'Not regognizing Israel as Jewish is anti-Semitic,' Pope says,” Times of Israel, (May 28, 2015).
“Catholics should not try to convert Jews, Vatican says in landmark document,” Jerusalem Post, (December 10, 2015).
“Pope Francis’ Denunciation of Rising Antisemitism Shows His ‘Profound Commitment to Jewish People,’ Says Prominent Rabbi,” Algemeiner, (November 14, 2019).
“Pope Francis Decries ‘Resurgent, Barbaric’ Anti-Semitism in Meeting with Simon Wiesenthal Center Delegation on Eve of 75th Anniversary of Auschwitz Liberation,” Simon Wiesenthal Center, (January 20, 2020).
Ben Sales, “Pope Francis restricts Latin Mass that caused controversy with Jews,” JTA, (July 18, 2021).
Philip Pullella, “Israeli rabbis ask pope to clarify remarks on Jewish law,” Reuters, (August 25, 2021).
Philip Pullella, “Pope responds to Israeli criticism over comments on Jewish law,” Reuters, (September 6, 2021).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “In 1st, pope hosts Yad Vashem director at Vatican — but didn’t discuss Catholic Church’s Holocaust controversies,” JTA, (June 9, 2022).
Adam Easton, “Beatification for Polish family murdered for sheltering Jews,” BBC, (September 10, 2023).
Monika Scislowska, “Vatican beatifies a Polish family of 9 killed by the Nazis for sheltering Jews,” AP, (September 10, 2023).