No sooner had the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected a new Pope, Francis I, leaders of other religious groups were voicing their hopes for improved relationships between the Catholic church and its religious neighbors.
In an official statement, the Hindu American Foundation offered its best wishes to the new Pontiff, and looked forward to a time when the Church might come to respect Hindus and “other pluralist traditions” as also being divinely inspired.
They noted the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate which was the first time that the Church showed openness to Eastern religious traditions. It stated in part, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is holy and true in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. ”
Pope Benedict did not take advantage of opportunities for dialogue with “Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains,” according to HAF, and received few visitors from spiritual leaders of those traditions. In addition, his statements about other religious groups like Muslims and indigenous South American religions did not reflect an attitude of respect.
“Under Pope Benedict’s watch, the church did not privilege interfaith relations and pluralism with our community,” said Pawan Deshpande, HAF Executive Council member. “We sincerely hope that the Pope Francis I will take significant, meaningful, and lasting measures to create a more harmonious world.”
“As Hindus, it’s difficult to have meaningful interfaith dialogue when the Church is openly advocating for the demise of our faith,” said Padma Kuppa, HAF Executive Council member. “The appointment of Pope Francis I offers a great opportunity for the Church to build meaningful and substantive relations with a billion Hindus globally, repudiate its history of predatory proselytization, and foster a new relationship based on mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism.”
According to JTA, Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, noted that Cardinal Bergoglio had a history of cordial and supportive relations with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires before becoming Pope. He reached out to the Jewish community when the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building was bombed in 1994, killing 85 people, and signed on to a document “85 victims, 85 signatures” that marked the 11th anniversary of the bombing. He visited the rebuilt building in 2010 to meet with Jewish leaders.
On one occasion, he visited a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and called those gathered “my elder brothers.” “Today, here in this synagogue, we are made newly aware of the fact that we are a people on a journey and we place ourselves in God’s presence," then-archbishop Bergoglio was quoted as saying. "We must look at him and let him look at us, to examine our heart in his presence and to ask ourselves if we are walking blamelessly."
The president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, sent congratulations to the new pope, along with the hope for continuing “the intense course of dialogue that the Jews have always hoped for and that has been also realized through the work of the popes who have led the church in the recent past."
Muslims, too, hope for an improvement in relations. Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic relations at George Washington University, declared, "Whoever the next pope will be I think externally the most important issue that he will face is the relationship of Christianity to Islam."
Nasr sees many points of commonality between Christianity and Islam, and the opportunity to work together on common concerns. Many in the church, however, see Islam as a competing religion and want a leader who will defend the church.