With a lingering invitation from Israeli President Shimon Peres from April and other Israeli officials, Pope Francis is now set to make his first visit as Pope to Israel in March 2014. Israel's Channel 2 news reported on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013 that the Pope will be visiting Israel with his friend and Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, they will be going together as a joint pilgrimage marking the 50th anniversary Pope Paul VI's own visit to Israel, when he went to Jerusalem in 1964 prior to the Vatican even recognizing Israel as a country.
Pope Francis has had three in-person invitations from political leaders in Israel to visit the country. President Shimon Peres invited the Pope in April, and Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, Zion Evrony extended an invitation after the Pope's election when they met for the first time. While just last week Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein from the Likud Party invited the Pope to Israel when he met with him at the Vatican. Pope Francis replied; "I'll come! I'll come!"
The speaker invited the Pope to be his official guest and visit the Knesset during his upcoming trip to Israel. Edelstein also asked Pope Francis to help curb anti-Semitism expressing; "There is still anti-Semitism in the world. I ask you to use your influence to combat it." Speaker Edelstein was on a diplomatic mission to Rome, visiting Italy and the Vatican to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Iran's nuclear weapons.
Peres invited Pope Francis to Israel right after his March 2013 election in a congratulatory letter, stating; "The sooner you visit, the better; in these days, a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace." In a statement Peres commented; "He'll be a welcome guest in the Holy Land, as a man of inspiration who can add to the attempt to bring peace in a stormy area. All people here, without exception, without difference of religion or nationality, will welcome the newly elected pope."
At the end of April, President Peres privately met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. There Peres formerly invited the Pope to visit Israel; "I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel." Peres said after their meeting. Pope Francis accepted, but did not give a date, and told Peres; "I learned optimism from you; you are an inspiration to me." In July, Peres' office only could respond that any prospective visit would be "in the near future."
In July, Pope Francis speaking to the press on his return flight to the Vatican after his first overseas trip as Pope to Brazil, expressed that he would make his trip to Israel in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's 1964 trip to Israel. Pope Francis told the media; "The government of Israel granted me a unique opportunity to come to Jerusalem."
Rabbi Skorka, a friend and colleague of Pope Francis from Argentina has also been a key element to the Pope's visit to Israel. They will travel together to "send a message against anti-Semitism." The Rabbi and the Pope became friends after they met in 1997, when the then Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio was promoted to be the Coadjutor Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he became cardinal only three years later in 2001.
Rabbi Skorka created another first with Pope Francis spending and dinning with the Pope at the Vatican during the Sukkot holiday, where the Pope ensured that the Rabbi was able to eat Kosher. While in Italy, Rabbi Skorka spoke to La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper about the Jewish-Catholic relationship forged between the Rabbi and the Pope. Skorka explained; "We hold to different traditions, but we are creating a dialogue that has not existed for centuries. Both of us believe that God has something to do with our friendship and with what we are doing,"
Skorka told the newspaper about the upcoming trip; "I dream of embracing him at the Kotel, or Wailing Wall, and I will accompany him to Bethlehem, in the Palestinian territories. His presence can help a lot at this moment when the peace talks are starting again."
Rabbi Skorka is the rector of the Latin American Rabbinic Seminary and is also a biophysicist. The two religious leaders co-authored one book, Sobre el cielo y la tierra "On Heaven and Earth," it was a book length transcript of their televised dialogue on religious and philosophical issues; their discussions regularly appeared on the Archdiocesan TV channel.
This would be Pope Francis' second trip to Israel; he first visited in 1973, when he was a young priest, the Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, while studying to become the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus of Argentina. He arrived at the same time the Yom Kippur War broke out.
According the Times of Israel, he was able to tour the religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the first day of his trip, but then he ended up spending six days in his Jerusalem hotel, American Colony Hotel, while the war raged on. Taking advantage of the delay he studied the "Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians," with books borrowed from the library.
Pope Francis had been committed as a cardinal to interfaith-dialogue and having a good relationship with Argentina's Jewish Community. He brought that same commitment to the papacy, winning the praise of Jewish communities around the world upon his election. He has been continuing his outreach with the world Jewish community and Israel's political leaders during the first six months of his tenure.
Pope Francis is also speaking out against anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, using his position to curb a growing surge of anti-Semitism in Europe. Pope Francis held a meeting on Friday, Oct. 11 to mark the 70th anniversary of Rome deporting its city's Jewish population to Auschwitz. On Oct 16, 1943, a 1000 Jews were deported, 16 survived the encampment. Pope Francis expressed that he wants to continue his special relationship "that nearness and friendship" with the Jewish community as Pope.
He also fervently spoke out against anti-Semitism; "It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are in part Jewish. A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic! May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman!" The Pope also stated the same message in an article he wrote in the Sept. 11th edition of La Repubblica in honor of Yom Kippur, stating; "This is a question - believe me - that touches us profoundly as Christians, because with the help of God, especially since the Second Vatican Council [created 50 years ago], we have rediscovered that the Jewish People are still for us the holy root that produced Jesus."
The Pope spoke out against the Holocaust in his Yom Kippur article as well, writing; "During all these years of friendship with our Jewish brothers in Argentina, I, too, have questioned God many times in my prayers, especially when my mind turned to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoah."
Pope Francis' two predecessors's also visited Israel during their tenures, Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009 and Pope John Paul II visited in 2000. His trip will certainly strengthen the bond between the new pontiff, the Jewish community and Israel, sending a positive message worldwide that can only help curb the tide of anti-Semitism.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.