One of Pope Francis’ dearest friends is none other than a Jewish Rabbi.
And Rabbi Abahram Skorka, who has known Pope Francis for 15 years, since he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, has a concise description of what makes Francis’ papacy different from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger.
Pope Francis “lives with his mind in heaven and with his feet on Earth,” Rabbi Skorka told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. “And Ratzinger lived totally in heaven.”
Abraham Skorka, a prominent Argentine rabbi, has had frank and open conversations with Pope Francis since he was Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. Those discussions are the topic of a book written by both, “On Heaven and Earth.”
Rabbi Skorka and Cardinal Bergoglio formed their friendship, the rabbi said, over that most beloved of traditions: soccer.
“The beginning was through jokes,” Rabbi Skorka said. “But behind the jokes … [I] understood then that he sent me a message: ‘I open my heart.’”
Since then, their friendship has been one of not only jokes, but deep theological thought.
Pope Francis has proved, from his first day as the Bishop of Rome, that his will be a different papacy: One that emphasizes humility and deep analysis, not pomp or dogma.
And from their 15-year-long relationship, Rabbi Skorka drew evidence of just how true that was.
On the issue of priestly celibacy, Cardinal Bergolgio in the book says, “It is an issue of discipline, not faith.”
“He told me, look, I receive this tradition, but I know this is not a dogma,” Rabbi Skorka told Amanpour. “This is just a tradition and maybe that in the future it could be changed.”
“Don’t forget that he has had history of 2,000 years behind him,” he said. But “he has a very open mind in order to analyze all the things. For him, there is not a closed thing – even homosexuality, even abortion – to analyze.”
Their friendship sits on the shoulders of interfaith relations that have often been treated with deep skepticism, piqued most notably during World War II, and Jews’ questioning of whether Pope Pius XII could have done more to stem the atrocity.
In the book, as Cardinal, Bergoglio seemed to stand behind those who want to open up the Vatican archives.
“Let them be opened and let everything be cleared up,” Bergoglio said. “If they made a mistake in any aspect of this we would have to say, ‘We have erred.’ We don’t need to be scared of this – the truth as to be the goal.”
Rabbi Skorka said that Francis will surely “do what he said – that it has to be done.”
In the book, the two also discuss Argentina’s terrible years under military dictatorship, when the so-called “Dirty War” flourished.
Cardinal Bergoglio compared the Argentine Catholic Church to the Chilean Church, which observers say stood up more firmly to its dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
“It’s a [critique of] the Argentinian church,” Rabbi Skorka said. “Catholic priests were present in the places where people were tortured. And he criticized a lot this kind of priest.”
Some have questioned Pope Francis’ own role during the war, and Rabbi Skorka broached the topic with his friend.
“He has a very critical point of view regarding his own attitude during that period, asking himself, ‘Did I do the utmost?’”
“But what we know now, very clear, that he hoped a lot of people – he saved a lot of people.”
Rabbi Skorka said he did not know what the Pope would change in the Church “in a pragmatical way,” for example about the role of women.
“But what I am really sure is that he will analyze one and thousand times what is possible to be changed. He will open the debate.”
It is undeniable, though, that the Pope has put forward a new face for the Catholic Church.
Since he ascended to the papacy, Rabbi Skorka said, Cardinal Bergoglio “laughs more.”
“He used to smile, but now very much often,” he said. “He laughs with a big laugh. And why? Because he knows that he must transmit – and it’s coming out from his heart – because he knows that he must transmit an image of hope, of hope through his laugh.”