by Gina Christian
Archbishop Nelson Perez has been welcomed by several of Philadelphia’s interfaith leaders who attended his Feb. 18 Mass of installation.
“I’m glad that Archbishop Perez has already extended a warm hand to me,” said Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, the city’s director for faith-based and interfaith affairs.
An adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, Rev. Washington-Leapheart said that she’s “excited to explore” potential partnership opportunities, especially since Philadelphia’s new shepherd “has already done some important work, particularly in terms of engagement with Latino communities and college students.”
Also in attendance was Elder Vai Sikahema of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose Philadelphia temple is located across the street from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, as well as Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) of St. Joseph’s University.
Founded in 1967, the IJCR is the oldest university center of its kind in the U.S. created in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for increased interfaith dialogue.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka – a longtime friend and collaborator of Pope Francis – said that Archbishop Perez’s “images and concepts” evoked “the idea of ‘shepherd’ that Francis demands from priests.”
Among those demands are “interfaith and intercultural dialogue,” said Rabbi Skorka,
In their native Argentina, Rabbi Skorka and then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio co-wrote the book “On Heaven and Earth,” and hosted the award-winning television show “Bible: A Dialogue for Today.”
The two continue to enhance dialogue among Catholic, Jewish and other faith-based communities, an effort Rabbi Skorka described as “the only way in order to pave the path for peace.”
As leader of the five-county area’s Catholics, Archbishop Perez is a co-convener of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. Founded in 2006, the group (a first for the city) works to represent and support more than two million people of diverse faiths.
Such initiatives are more vital than ever, said Rabbi Skorka.
“There are gaps to overcome in American society, in interpersonal and interfamilial relationships,” he said, adding that creating real dialogue to address such gaps “is a burning point.”
Rev. Washington-Leapheart said that overcoming divides can be as simple as having an everyday conversation.
Noting the city’s “wide and deep religious diversity,” which manifests itself even at a “household by household” level, she observed that “when neighbors and family talk, they’re engaging in interfaith dialogue and relationship-building.”
To foster understanding and respect among faith traditions, she recommended “(tapping) into what intrinsically connects us.”
“There are some existential needs and hopes that all human beings have,” said Rev. Washington-Leapheart, including “the need to find purpose, (and) the hope of enduring love.
“If we can remember that, we can stay at the interfaith table,” she said.
Rabbi Skorka said that Pope Francis is a man of action, for whom interfaith dialogue is not “merely the signing of documents and agreements, but the real commitment to transform (them) into a reality.”
He believes that Archbishop Perez will do just that, especially given what he believes is a strong spiritual resemblance to the pope.
“When I greeted the Archbishop, he said, ‘Pray for me,’ the same words that my friend Francis has told me for more than twenty years,” said Rabbi Skorka. “And I gave him the sincere answer that I give my friend: this I will do. And thoughts of blessing came to my mind.”