by Ryan Mulligan ’21
Rabbi Abraham Skorka has been appointed to the position of “University Professor,” according to a Feb. 19 announcement made by University President Mark C. Reed, Ed.D.
Beginning in the fall of 2018, Skorka will work closely with the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations and will directly collaborate with the institute’s directors, Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of theology and Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., assistant professor of Jewish studies, who both work in the department of theology and religious studies.
“He has a lot of experience in interreligious dialogue and Catholic-Jewish relations,” Cunningham said. “We’re looking forward to working with him on expanding and developing programs in connection with the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.”
Skorka’s voice in interreligious dialogue has been at the forefront internationally because of his close friendship with Pope Francis. Their relationship was born in their shared home of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has flourished as each has risen towards positions of leadership in their respective faiths.
Gregerman added that Skorka’s international reputation is an asset to the university.
“We hope he’ll have the opportunity to speak to public audiences in different settings on campus,” Gregerman said.
The Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations is still in the early stages of planning exactly how to utilize Skorka’s gifts.
Both Cunningham and Gregerman said discussions are ongoing about Skorka’s precise role.
“We’re really at the stage now of trying to present a spectrum of possibilities for his involvement once he’s here,” Gregerman said. “This is a period of planning for his visit in a couple of different realms: on campus, in the community, and even internationally.”
For the last 20 years, Skorka has dome much of his work out of Buenos Aires, where he has served as the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, which trains people from all over South America to become rabbis and cantors. He has emerged as a voice for the population of Latin American Jews.
“In addition, he has served a pulpit rabbi in a local synagogue in Buenos Aires for along time,” Cunningham said. “So he brings what in the Catholic world we’d say is a pastoral touch to people in their everyday lives and the spirituality of everyday life by drawing upon rabbinic texts.”
Jewish-Catholic relations have been improving since the Second Vatican Council, both Gregerman and Cunningham agreed. So too did William Madges, Ph.D., professor of theology at St. Joe’s and co-director of a widely-viewed traveling exhibit on the Second Vatican Council.
“Currently I think the relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people really in many ways is quite positive,” Madges said. “This is the outgrowth of more than 50 years of dialogue between the two faith traditions that really was strongly promoted by the Second Vatican Council and its document ‘Nostra Aetate.'”
‘Nostra Aetate’ stated Catholics no longer considered Jews guilty for the death of Jesus Christ. The St. Joe’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic relations was formed immediately after the Second Vatican Council in 1967.
“There is a history in the relationship of St. Joe’s to the wider Philadelphia community and the wider Jewish community that spans decades of positive interaction,” Cunningham said.
Skorka’s presence was initially felt on campus in the days prior to the pope’s visit in 2015. He was the keynote speaker at the dedication of the sculpture Synagoga and Ecclesia which now sits in the center of Cardinal Campus just outside the Chapel of Saint Joseph.
It depicts, as equals, two women, one a symbol of Judaism and the other of Christianity. In an embrace during Pope Francis’ visit, Skorka pointed out that the sculpture resembled the two of them saying, “They are you and I, pope and rabbi learning from one another.”
“All of that work that they’ve been doing at the Institute and the relationship between Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis gets symbolized in this idea,” Madges said. “When people really pay attention to that sculpture, notice what’s happening. It’s like they’re both at the same level, so they’re looking at each other as equals, which is really different from the history of Jewish-Christian relations.”
It is as if the sculpture has acted as a symbol, foreshadowing the appointment of Skorka. However, Cunningham sees it as no coincidence.
“The mission of our institute flows very naturally from the mission of the university,” Cunningham said. “Part of the Jesuit identity of Saint Joseph’s makes a priority of interreligious dialogue. So, the sculpture is an expression of the commitment to interreligious dialogue and infuses the mission of Saint Joseph’s University.”
What may seem like a welcome addition to the St. Joe’s community may have implications far past West Philadelphia, Madges said.
“The work that he is going to do here could have implications far beyond improving relations here in our local community, but really has the potential for improving and strengthening relations in a very high international and institutional level,” Madges said.