Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka Reunited in Philadelphia

Marc Kaplin, ADL Chair Emeritus; Nancy Baron-Baer, executive director of ADL SE PA; Andy Goldman, ADL Chair Emeritus; with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, of Buenos Aires, the keynote speaker at the Golden Jubilee observance of "Nostra Aetate" at Saint Joseph's University, and Dr. Philip Cunningham, director of Saint Joseph's University Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.

Marc Kaplin, ADL Chair Emeritus; Nancy Baron-Baer, executive director of ADL SE PA; Andy Goldman, ADL Chair Emeritus; with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, of Buenos Aires; and Dr. Philip Cunningham, director of Saint Joseph’s University Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. Photo: Bonnie Squires.

Philadelphia is still basking in the glow of Pope Francis and the Papal Visit, with all the activities which led up to his presence here.  Perhaps the brightest glow is coming from Saint Joseph’s University, which bridges the city and the suburbs (Lower Merion Township), and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations there.

One day before Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia, the Institute held a conference, celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Nostra Aetate, with a keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka, close friend and collaborator from Buenos Aires of the Pope.

After remarks by various people, the assembled audience moved outdoors to see the unveiling of the new sculpture, Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time, by sculptor Joshua Koffman, installed in front of the chapel on the campus. The statue represents Judaism and Catholicism as equals and helpers.

There were representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Board of Rabbis, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Rabbi Skorka had been invited to have lunch with his dear friend at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary the Sunday of the Papal Visit.  An unscheduled stop was then arranged, probably by Rabbi Skorka, to the sculpture, and Pope Francis blessed the new statue with holy water.

Dr. Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, made certain that the newly installed president of his university, Dr. Mark Reed, along with several of his board members, and an audience of hundreds of students gathered at the last minute, were able to observe and enjoy the Pope’s presence on campus.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka, friend and colleague of Pope Francis, with Bonnie Squires.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka, friend and colleague of Pope Francis, with Bonnie Squires.

But the Jewish participation in the events leading up to the Papal Visit, as well as the Pope’s two-day whirlwind of activities in Philadelphia and Lower Merion, was significant.  The book, On Heaven and Earth, co-authored by Pope Francis when he was still the Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, with Rabbi Skorka, focused on their interfaith dialogue.  Their decades-long friendship and dialogues were reflected in the generosity and participation of Jewish benefactors in the whole celebration.

The World Meeting of Families also got to hear Rabbi Skorka’s words of wisdom at one of the sessions.

When the Pope arrived at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Saturday morning, I watched on television as Lower Merion Commissioner Liz Rogan and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, both Jews, were introduced to Pope Francis.

Jeanette Lerman Neubauer and her husband Joe Neubauer, chairman of ARA (formerly Aramark), were part of the delegation with Mayor Michael Nutter which had visited the Vatican the year before to invite Pope Francis to visit Philadelphia.  The Neubauers were among the major funders of the preparations for the Papal Visit and were prominent at the major events in Philadelphia..

“Supporting religious diversity is not new to Philadelphia,” said Jeanette Lerman Neubauer “Benjamin Franklin contributed to Mikveh Israel.  We were happy to help welcome the Pope. His leadership style is to establish what people have in common as antecedent to resolving differences.  His visit lifted all of Philadelphia.”

One of the most important exhibits tied to the Papal Visit is the Vatican Splendors exhibition at The Franklin Institute.  And it is probably more than coincidence that both Larry Dubinski, the CEO of The Franklin Institute, as well as Mark Greenberg, president of Evergreen Exhibitions which designed the exhibit of treasures, many of which had never been seen before outside the Vatican, are both Jewish.

At the opening reception, there were probably as many Jewish guests as Catholic guests, and Cardinal Chaput was delighted with the turn-out.

There were many moving pieces to hosting Pope Francis and his entourage, and the Honorable Constance Hess Williams, chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said the museum hosted all the religious participants in the Sunday Mass. 1500 priests, deacons, bishops, along with Homeland Security and other federal agents, were installed in the museum.

We have a lot of religious art. We fed them lunch, opened the galleries for them — we have a wonderful Jan van Eyck portrait of St. Francis of Assisi that they all wanted to see.  The catered lunch offered some Argentinian beef, chicken salad on pretzel bread, and items representing Italy, Argentina and the U.S.

So many of our visitors were from other countries – thrilled to look at the museum’s offerings, kept thanking us.  I met a priest from Ambler, Father McHenry, who works closely with synagogues near him.  Many priests have rabbi friends.    For me it was a wonderful opportunity to welcome people to the museum and to Philadelphia.  I hope that Pope Francis’ message endures and resonates, his message of inclusion and cooperation.

Other Jewish participants included David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, and Lynne and Harold Honickman, the philanthropists who hosted Sister Mary Scullion over the weekend so that she could welcome Pope Francis to the Knotted Grotto installation in front of the SS Peter and Paul Basilica at the top of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  Thousands of unfulfilled wishes were written on scraps of cloth and tied to the art installation.

Visitors are now flocking to the Jewish-Catholic statue on Saint Joseph’s University campus, giving us hope that interfaith dialogue and cooperation will grow even stronger.


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